“It’s as though the presence of oil makes everyone behave at their worst,” said Ed Kashi about his new book, Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest oil producer and the book investigates the environmental and social damage that this hugely valuable resource has inflicted upon the region. It was not an easy ride; Kashi was detained for six days by the Nigerian authorities, at one point fearing for his life. He also gained risky access to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, militant rebels who use violence to try to bring about change.
In a recent interview in PDN, Martin Parr, a man who enjoys having a go at his traditionalist Magnum colleagues, put the boot into the “humanist” approach to photojournalism: “There is the old approach, whereby you try to change the world. Nobody is going to obliterate war, famine, Aids, and all the other things that are the usual subject matter that more campaigning photojournalists would be attracted to.” Parr claims to subvert the magazine agenda: “I shoot interesting subject matter but disguise it as entertainment. That’s what people want in magazines.”
Curse of the Black Gold is unlikely to appeal to the luvvie factor of smart magazines; it is neither coolly ironic nor cleverly self-mocking. Kashi probably does not see himself as an entertainer and might be happy to align himself with those marginalised Magnum oldies though I doubt whether he ever felt able to “change the world”. He may, perhaps, have hoped to touch our consciousness and make us more aware of the global connection between the resources we consume and the human costs involved.
This carefully conceived and designed exposition of what oil can do to those who live and work within its viscous shadow is a riveting, fresh and revealing body of documentary work. Its complexity lies in the way that it relates back the Delta’s anarchy, poverty, corruption, lack of education and healthcare, atrocious housing and angry hopelessness to the core situation in which those who live in this oil-rich land receive virtually none of the benefits.
The book’s powerful photo essays are interspersed with diverse writings by leading Nigerian journalists and human rights activists and an authoritative background article by the book’s editor, Michael Watts, director of African studies at the University of California, Berkeley. The visual journalism interconnects and overlaps, permeated by a strong consistency of vision. It’s the oil, of course, that binds it all together and Kashi’s apocalyptic tone shakes one to the roots. The looming physical presence of oil and gas infrastructure and detritus is everywhere. Two extraordinary images convey the environmental degradation that so upsets Kashi; in one, a group of women bake tapioca using the heat of a gas flare from a pipeline; in another, in the largest abattoir in the region, carcasses of freshly killed animals are roasted by the flames of burning tyres, causing acrid, black smoke to pollute the neighbourhood (and no doubt the lungs of the workers too).
In the absence of a strong and consistent documentary presence in magazines, what should we expect from a book such as this? Over and above a high level of photography, we should want to feel that the photographer has earned the right to demand our attention, that he knows his subject, has done his research and has put in the time. We may secretly hope that the publication will work a bit of magic on us, persuading us to think a little more about the subject than we did before. Above all, we should be motivated to return to the book often and look at the images many times over. Unlike so many contemporary photographic books that eschew narrative and disdain explicit communication, Curse of the Black Gold fulfils these expectations, chipping away at the edge of our indifference.