This summer George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film presents National Geographic photojournalist Ed Kashi’s images of oil exploitation in Africa’s 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 Nigeria’s 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 world’s centers of biodiversity,” said Kashi, who photographed the region from 2004 to 2006. “These images expose the reality of oil’s 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.”
… While the Delta produces 95 percent of the country’s 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 Africa’s 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 O’Neill, in the 2007 National Geographic article illustrated by Kashi’s 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 Kashi’s powerful photographs, O’Neill’s 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 promise—oil.”
The exhibit at the George Eastman House starts today, June 14, and runs through September 1 2008. The museum is located in Rochester New York:
George Eastman House · 900 East Ave · Rochester, NY 14607 · 585-271-3361
Curse of the Black Gold is also available as a book you can purchase, or suggest your library purchase.
The text is written by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, plus prominent Nigerian journalists, human rights activists, and University of California at Berkeley professor Michael Watts.
From the description at Amazon:
Now one of the major suppliers of U.S. oil, Nigeria is the sixth largest producer of oil in the world. Set against a backdrop of what has been called the scramble for African oil, Curse of the Black Gold is the first book to document the consequences of a half-century of oil exploration and production in one of the world’s foremost centers of biodiversity. This book exposes the reality of oil’s impact and the absence of sustainable development in its wake, providing a compelling pictorial history of one of the world’s great deltaic areas. Accompanied by powerful writing by some of the most prominent public intellectuals and critics in contemporary Nigeria, Kashi’s photographs capture local leaders, armed militants, oil workers, and nameless villagers, all of whose fates are inextricably linked. His exclusive coverage bears witness to the ongoing struggles of local communities, illustrating the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty.
The Curse of the Black Gold book and exhibit add to the testimony that is finally coming forward about what the extraction of oil actually means, to people, and to the ecosystem.
Also look for the documentary film Sweet Crude.