Freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer Rena Effendi, who is a frequent EurasiaNet contributor based in Baku, Azerbaijan, is featured on The Guardian's news Web site in the 'My Best Shot' column.
Rena says of her photo:
I took this photograph in Mahalla, one of the old neighbourhoods in my hometown of Baku, Azerbaijan. There was a construction boom after the influx of new oil money in the late 90s, and all the old homes were being destroyed to make way for new high-rise flats. I worked on the streets of Mahalla for four years, collecting pictures of the faces and places that were gradually being forced out.
The man to the left of the picture approached me on the street. He had seen me walking with my camera, and he asked me to photograph his mother on her death bed. He said, "It's her last day of life – I just want to have a picture to remember her." He was an elderly man, and yet he had approached me, a 25-year-old woman, and asked for a favour. That is totally against the traditional code of behaviour. This picture was the first to show me that photography gives you licence to go to places you otherwise never could.
When we walked in, I was stunned by the scene. It was the first time I had seen someone dying up close. In the light streaming through the window, the old woman was almost transparent, and her breathing was heavy and very loud. My colleague saw I was paralysed, so he whispered: "2.8 on 15." I set my camera's shutter speed and aperture and took a few pictures.
I was in such a state that I couldn't move from the doorway, and that's where I took this picture from. The man on the phone was calling relatives, telling them the situation. I have no idea who the other woman is: she could be his wife, or his daughter. At the time, I didn't even notice the newspaper on the walls, which was quite common in Baku – a lot of people couldn't afford wallpaper. It was only when I printed the photograph that I saw all the pictures of smiling women. I took one frame, and then I thought I should take a closer one, but my hands were shaking, so it came out blurry.
I felt privileged to witness such an intimate moment. Mahalla is a very patriarchal society, but photography enables the normal social roles to be reinvented. I was no longer a young girl, being patronised. It was as if I had become genderless.
A couple of days later, I took the picture back to the family. There was a funeral tent outside. The man took the picture and thanked me. He never told me his name, or that of his mother, and I decided to keep it that way. I didn't want to ruin the mystery.