Rena Effendi Captures The Forgotten Faces Of The Oil Boom

Tony Halpin

The Times
December 12, 2009

A new book by the photographer charts the effect of a vital oil
pipeline on the people who live above it, but do not profit as it
feeds the appetite of the West

hey are the forgotten faces of an oil boom that is literally passing
them by, people connected by poverty along a billion-dollar pipeline
that threads through the volatile Caucasus to pump energy to the West.

Their lives are captured in a book of bleakly beautiful photographs by
Rena Effendi, who travelled along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline,
through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, to document some of the
effects of the new Great Game of power politics playing out in this
exotic region. Oil bonanzas usually conjure up images of wealth and
glamour but Effendi, an Azerbaijani, focused on those left high and
dry despite the flood of petro-dollars.

The pipeline, which is underground for its entire length of 1,768km, is
an invisible intruder into her pictures and the lives of her subjects,
who are mostly farmers, fishermen and the urban poor, struggling for
survival in the shadow of a building boom in the Azeri capital, Baku.

"I show the pipeline through the faces and homes of the people living
above it. They can’t see it and they have no control, they are up
against something big," Effendi says. "It is a good project, good for
the region. But it has a human cost and the book is about that cost."

Its title, Pipe Dreams, betrays her ambivalence about a project that
transformed her own prospects and those of her country, a former
Soviet republic of eight million people that was in turmoil after
a humiliating defeat by Armenia in a war over the breakaway enclave
of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The pipeline delivers one million barrels of crude oil a day from
vast Caspian Sea deposits, the output of a deal dubbed the "contract
of the century" when it was signed in 1994 between Azerbaijan and a
consortium of Western oil companies led by BP. The investment sparked
Baku’s second energy boom, a century after tycoons such as the Nobel
brothers, the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers had made the city the
source of half the world’s oil supplies.

Ironically, Effendi’s book examining the boom’s underbelly was born
of an assignment from BP to photograph a calendar highlighting the
company’s investment in schools and health facilities for people on
the Azerbaijani section of the pipeline.

"I was driven around from project to project and decided I needed
to go back and make a journey on my own, not just in Azerbaijan, but
also in Georgia and Turkey. The book is about the people who are not
participating, but I didn’t do it to paint a sad picture," she says.

"My purpose was to tell a human story about families living on $50
(£31) a month above a pipeline that is carrying almost $100 million
a day. A lot of people who see all this energy going to the West have
not had gas supplies in their own homes for decades."

The book took six years to complete, but Effendi’s life has been bound
up with the pipeline for much longer. Her first job was with BP, as
a translator, and she then worked with the US Embassy as an economic
assistant, interpreting for high-level delegations that visited Baku
to discuss the pipeline.

"I built up my life on this oil boom so I can’t judge it. We never
had Irish bars in Baku but after the contract was signed in ’94 we
had our first Irish pub," she says. "This was in a country that had
just had a military curfew and people were not being allowed on the
streets after 11pm. That dramatic change was quite fascinating. I
went to the bars myself and I liked them."

Her images speak of disappointment in all three countries among people
who believed that they were promised a better life with the arrival of
the pipeline. Villagers live in decaying homes in Sangachal, only 500m
from the modern oil terminal that marks the start of the pipeline. At
the other end, Turkish fishermen are photographed through nets that
no longer provide a living because fishing grounds have been damaged
by oil tankers docking at Ceyhan.

Oil money appears corrosively in Effendi’s photographs of Baku. Luxury
apartment blocks loom above residents of Mahalla, an historic
neighbourhood that is gradually being erased by developers whose
building permits were sold by corrupt officials. A man grips
a prostitute’s rear possessively in a disco, emblematic of a
freewheeling nightlife fuelled by the influx of foreign oil workers
and stiletto-heeled provincial women eager to stake their claim to
some of the capital’s new wealth.

It presents a stark contrast to the decaying remains of the Soviet
drilling industry, which has bequeathed poisonous oil lakes and waste
dumps populated by scavengers. War too has left its scars on this
ethnically diverse region. The pipeline weaves through five conflict
zones, its route determined as much by politics as economics. The
shortest route would have been through Armenia, something Azerbaijan
refused to countenance because of the unresolved conflict over
Nagorno-Karabakh. Instead, it arcs expensively around Armenia and
through Georgia.

The pipeline was targeted, unsuccessfully, by Russian bombs during
the war with Georgia last year over another breakaway region, South
Ossetia. Because oil is the lifeblood of modern economies, the contest
over resources is the modern version of the 19th-century "great
game" between Russia and Britain. Russia and the West are locked in
a strategic struggle for control of the Caucasus as a gateway to the
energy riches of Caspian and Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan
and Turkmenistan.

"It’s dangerous ground. The pipeline goes through a minefield of
conflict zones and different cultures and avoids other areas for
political reasons, at great economic cost," Effendi says. "It
[the pipeline] is good for all three countries, it increases
our international profile. I am not against it. But these small
individuals living along its path have no power to decide and they
are being affected, they exist."

Effendi is in London to launch her book and to see her work displayed
at the HOST gallery as part of the first festival of Azerbaijani arts
in Britain. Still only 32, her social documentary style has earned
her recognition as a rising star and her pictures have been shown at
biennales in Venice and Istanbul.

Azerbaijan has been much less appreciative of her book. Customs
officials impounded 50 copies sent to Effendi by her publisher three
months ago after government ministers claimed that it damaged the
country’s image. "You can buy the book anywhere in Europe, but the 50
copies I had to give out to friends have been arrested," Effendi says,
laughing. "They are booing my book because it doesn’t show the usual
smiley face."

Rena Effendi’s exhibition at HOST gallery, London EC1, runs from
December 17 to January 16 and is part of the Buta Festival of
Azerbaijani Arts, which runs until March 7 across London (www.buta

Pipe Dreams is published by Schilt