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Rene Women Interviews 0007: Rengim Mutevellioglu

Rengim, a remarkable individual known for her kindness, unwavering curiosity, and deep commitment to humanism, has been on a photographic journey for nearly two decades, ever since the tender age of 11. Her passion for photography has led her to capture the world through a unique lens, and her remarkable work has even graced the pages of The New York Times, a testament to her exceptional talent and dedication. Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of Rengim and discover the profound stories she tells through her lens.

Rengim was born in Moscow and grew up in various cities as the daughter of a diplomat. Her passion for photography ignited at the age of 11 when her father, who was always the family’s memory keeper during their travels, inspired her to pick up a camera and start capturing family moments.

Her early photographic experiments took place during her secondary school years. She and her friends would raid their mothers’ wardrobes for outfits, experimenting with lighting and photography. These moments remain cherished by her to this day.

Rengim’s dedication to her interests is unwavering. While in New York with her family, she would spend her time at Barnes & Noble, delving into photography books, while her mother relaxed at Starbucks.

From a young age, she knew that photography was her true calling, and she has continued to pursue her passion ever since.

When asked about her first professional assignment, she recounted that it was for a Middle Eastern architecture magazine, where she photographed the Pakistani Embassy in Ankara. Architecture is another subject that captivates her, and she speaks highly of the intriguing and significant buildings in her hometown of Ankara.

As an expatriate living in New York, Rengim shared her feelings about her hometown and what she considers home. She is close to her neighbors in New York and often brings them boxes of Turkish delight from her native country. However, the aroma of mint or the unexpected call to prayer in the Yemeni neighborhood can trigger a deep longing for Turkey. These small details, like Proust’s madeleines, evoke memories of family and home.

When asked about her motivation for pursuing a career in photography, Rengim emphasized the importance of preserving archives. She believes that without documentation, people, lives, and events can fade into obscurity. She encourages people to capture more moments, even through smartphone cameras, to ensure that these memories are remembered and not lost.

This is our interview with Rengim.

Steph: Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? What was that experience like as 11 year old you?

Rengim: I don’t think I can remember a singular moment where I picked up a camera that changed my life forever. I do, however, have distinctive memories of being around 10 and thinking my dad was missing the opportunity to take pictures of the surrounding landscape when he had us pose in the middle of it. I thought I could just look in the mirror and see myself, but I wouldn’t be back in these spots so I needed to take pictures to remember them by. Very early on it was a lot of concern about the fleeting nature of memory and photography was my experimentation with holding onto it. 

S: What is the most unusual or unexpected place you’ve ever taken a photograph, and what was the story behind it?

R: I’m currently doing a project on Dead Horse Bay, this corner of New York that was once an old landfill turned into a national park. Today the water is eroding the top layer and bringing forth household trash from the middle of the century. It’s an incredibly odd but lovely place that brings the best characters to it while being a living example of history and how time moves around it.  

S: Can you share a photography project that has had a significant impact on your life or career?

R: Alexandra Boulat’s war photography had a huge impact on teaching me about the possibilities of photography growing up. There’s so much life in her photos and she was a master of layering in her composition. She sadly passed away only at 45. 

S: What’s a dream project you’d love to take part in or spearhead that would be specifically for how meaningful it is to you personally. It might not be something that would bring much acclaim or money, but it would be hugely impactful to you and a group of people who could identify with that story. 

R: Currently there’s nothing I would love more than finishing a project I started about 6 years ago but has stalled due to several limitations. I started photographing Turkish women over 80 to ask them what they would’ve liked to have been had they had the opportunity to study and/or work and then dressed them in that profession. I had the privilege to have both of my grandmothers participate, they’ve since passed away.

S: In your opinion, what makes a photograph truly powerful and memorable?

R: A combination of composition, color and subject matter is where the secret sauce lies. 

S: As a photographer, you often need to capture the essence of a story or an event. How do you approach storytelling through your photographs?

R: If I have the luxury to be able to use several photos to tell a story, it gives me a lot more leeway and flexibility, I can make use of different angles and point of views to give the work more depth. Whereas if I have only one or two photos I have to make sure the photo tells the – mostly – complete story. At that point it’s a game of layering all the important information inside one photo. 

S: Could you describe your creative process when choosing the composition, lighting, and timing for a photograph during a live event or breaking news situation?

R: A lot of it is instinctual and comes from over a decade of trial and error. Sometimes you just know what works, compositional rules do become second nature at some point. And if you feel like you’re in a rut, it always helps me to “start from scratch” so to speak, experimenting with new things, relearning old stuff, giving the old nogging a shake. 

S: Reporters and photographers often work closely together to tell a story. How do you collaborate with journalists to ensure your photographs complement their reporting?

R: A huge part of photography does end up being part reporting as well. Even as a photographer you have to ask a lot of questions to get access and bring out different facets of a story to light. Having a collaborator there with you adds so much, different point of views, different angles a story can take.

S: Photography is a dynamic field with evolving technology. How do you stay updated with the latest trends and techniques in photography, especially in the digital age?

R: I try to stay updated on new developments but it has never been my priority, if my tool satisfies me I don’t really look for more. I just got my first new camera in a decade! 

S: In your experience, what is the most important skill or quality a reporter photographer should possess?

R: A combination of watching and listening. It’s crucial to be able to blend in, not just in an effort to stay objective but so as to make a subject comfortable. You’re there to witness, you’re not the center of attention – which may be difficult when you’re carrying a camera – but basic human connection goes a long way. 

S: Can you share some insights into the ethical considerations and challenges that can arise when documenting sensitive or difficult subjects?

R: Ethics has been a huge consideration in all aspects of my work. Most of the important challenges have to do with the subject and therefore requires that you relinquish a lot of power to the subject. Even before I got into photojournalism, I always wanted my work to be much more of a collaboration. Letting the subject dictate what makes them comfortable and taking into consideration how they wish to be portrayed is hugely important in taking steps in achieving a balanced reporting. 

S: Your work has been featured in prominent publications like The New York Times. What does it mean to you to have your photography recognized on such a platform?

R: It gives your work credence and weight in a way that may sometimes feel unfair. Having the backing of an important outlet is elevating, but I wish all reporting could be given the benefit of having the same importance regardless of its home. 

S: Photography often requires patience and being in the right place at the right time. Can you recount a time when your patience paid off in capturing a powerful image?

R: I know this is going to be a slightly shallow answer but if I had a super power it would be the ability to control birds. There’s nothing that creates dynamism in an image just like a bird flying by at the correct spot. So every time I get a shot of a bird in exactly the right spot it feels so powerful.

S: As someone who lives between two very dynamic, diverse, energetic cities– what do you love about each that is different? What do you love about each that is similar?

R: The 212 phone code. 

In all seriousness it’s the people. People are amazing and a huge number of them gathered in a small space where they share life just leads to so much exchange of vitality. Both Istanbul and New York also have incredibly rich history that is still kept alive in a variety of ways.

S: What makes you feel settled in your own home, wherever that might be? For me, I always feel at home with my dog, Churro, and when I can cook. Bonus points for being in a uniquely designed space. 

R: With how much I travel and move around I’ve found the one thing that is necessary for me to feel at home, is cleanliness and sunlight. Some order in a disordered life. 

S: Tell us about your life at home– what is your design style in your own space? What qualities of space inspire, calm or energize you at home?

R: I have a hard time fully settling into one space because of the aforementioned moves. So my style is a reflection of practicality and eclectic finds. I try to function exclusively through second hand finds, clothes and furniture especially, to get a handle on my consumption. When I move into a new space aside from the bare basics (a place to sleep and a table) I’ll give it time to find everything else. So it’s a hodge-podge of stuff that peak my fancy, stuff I find, stuff that have been gifted to me.  

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