ROCHESTER.- This summer George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film presents National Geographic photojournalist Ed Kashis images of oil exploitation in Africas Niger Delta, in the powerful exhibition Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. The display of 37 photographs, on view now through Sept. 1, takes a graphic look at the profound cost of oil exploitation in West Africa. The work traces, in an original and compelling way, the 50-year impact of Nigerias relationship to oil interests and the resulting environmental degradation and community conflicts that have plagued the region.
This exhibition provides a visual inventory of the consequences of a half century of oil exploration and production in one of the worlds centers of biodiversity, said Kashi, who photographed the region from 2004 to 2006. These images expose the reality of oils impact and the absence of sustainable development left in its wake. My eyes and heart were opened and my anger and disgust were ignited. To tell this difficult but profoundly important geopolitical story in a visual way became the focus of my work.
Nigeria, Africas most populous country with 148 million people, is the sixth largest producer of oil in the world and is currently one of the major suppliers of oil to the United States. However, a recent United Nations report shows that in quality of life, Nigeria rates below all other major oil nations. Almost all of Nigerias oil is pumped from the nine states that make up the Niger Delta in the southeast part of the country. While the Delta produces 95 percent of the countrys wealth, it is the poorest region in the nation. The first oil wellheads were tapped in 1958, and since then $500 billion worth of oil has been pumped out of the fertile ground and remote creeks of one of Africas largest deltas and the world's third largest wetland.
Oil production has caused devastating pollution to the Niger Delta due to the uninterrupted gas flaring and oil spillage. According to Kashi, these operations have destroyed the traditional livelihoods of the Niger Delta. Fishing and agriculture are no longer productive enough to feed the area and the residents are lacking schools, proper housing, and clean water.
From a potential model nation, Nigeria has become a dangerous country, addicted to oil money, with people increasingly willing to turn to corruption, sabotage, and murder to get a fix of the wealth, wrote Tom ONeill, in the 2007 National Geographic article illustrated by Kashis images. The cruelest twist is that half a century of oil extraction in the delta has failed to make the lives of the people better. Instead, they are poorer still, and hopeless.
Even without Kashis powerful photographs, ONeills words evoke images of despair: Villages and towns cling to the banks, little more than heaps of mud-walled huts and rusty shacks. Groups of hungry, half-naked children and sullen, idle adults wander dirt paths. There is no electricity, no clean water, no medicine, no schools. Fishing nets hang dry; dugout canoes sit unused on muddy banks. Decades of oil spills, acid rain from gas flares, and the stripping away of mangroves for pipelines have killed off fish. Nigeria has been subverted by the very thing that gave it promiseoil.
While working on that National Geographic assignment in 2006, Kashi was captured and held for four days by the Nigerian military, unsure of his fate. He was freed due to intervention from his wife, Nigerian friends, human rights workers, and National Geographic. Most people are not as fortunate and would have endured a much longer, more painful incarceration, he said. This event left me even more determined to create a body of visual work that would tell the story of the Niger Delta.
Kashis photographic subjects include a resident cooking her tapioca cakes against the heat of the refinerys flame; shanty houses on the riverbank overshadowed by pollution and smoke; workers covered in oil; and the work of MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), an armed and formidable militant group responsible for restricting 40 percent of Nigerias oil industry through direct attacks on its facilities and the taking of hostages.
Today, a military struggle is taking place in the Niger Delta between state security forces and a violent state machinery, yet little is known about it in the United States, Kashi explained. The violence of the Delta is a reaction to a long history of exploitation, the presence of transnational corporations, a style of politics that encourages violence, and the sheer number of factions, gangs, and cults without leadership.
And, Kashi noted, this region has long been a victim of exploitation, as it was key in the 1500s slave trade between West Africa and the New World. From these same ports, centuries later, depart ships carrying oil to the rest of the world.
Curse of the Black Gold is part of the a three-exhibition series titled Africas, which focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, on view at Eastman House this summer.
Ed Kashi has dedicated his photographic career to documenting the social and political issues that define our times. Kashi, after earning a degree in photojournalism from Syracuse University, has been photographing professionally since 1979. He has photographed in more than 60 countries and his images have appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, Time, Fortune, Geo, Newsweek, and many other domestic and international publications. Kashis collaboration with National Geographic, among other publications, has produced a growing body of work on the modern Middle-East. He has received numerous awards, including the World Press and Pictures of the Year competitions. Kashi and his wife, Julie Winokur, founded Talking Eyes Media, a non-profit educational multi-media company that explores social issues through visually compelling materials. The first documentary project for Talking Eyes Media produced a book and traveling exhibition on uninsured Americans called, Denied: The Crisis of America's Uninsured. His latest book, Curse of the Black Gold, was published in April 2008 (powerHouse books, $45).