Delta Nigeria - The Rape of Paradise
On Tuesday evening, George Osodi gave a talk at Foto8 in London then had a public conversation with Julian Stallabrass. I discovered Osodi's amazing photos at the last edition of Documenta and there was no way i'd miss his presentation.
The Nigerian photographer is one of those rare photo-reporters whose work is shown in newspapers as well as in art galleries around the world (you can check his photos right now in the Oil Show at HMKV in Dortmund). He was in London to discuss the Oil Rich Niger Delta series and his new book Delta Nigeria - The Rape of Paradise on the oil exploitation in the Delta region of his country.
Nigeria is West Africa's largest producer of crude oil but years of corruption and poor governance has left the southern Niger Delta desperately poor, its environment devastated by oil spills and gas flares and other environmental hazards as a result of activities of the oil companies in the region.
The story of Oil Rich Niger Delta started almost 10 years ago when Osodi decided to leave his well-paid job as a banker to buy a camera and teach himself photography. It didn't start too well. First of all, no one in Nigeria, he said, takes photography seriously and he received no encouragement from neither his friends nor his family.
To him, the Delta region, where he grew up is an endless source of wonder and stories of pollution, conflicts, greed, danger but also hope. However, no matter how hard he looked, every piece of documentation about it had been made by foreigners. He thought that the fact that he grew up 'inside' those issues would give him a perspective no foreigner could have.
The beginnings were hard. He worked with films and all his money was spent on materials, he didn't have internet at the time and would stay for hours in cafés and do research about photography online. At first, people recoiled in horror when they saw his photos. They were too harsh, too disturbing and raw. But bit by bit, he learnt to "make beautiful the most difficult issues." He worked on the aesthetics of his photos so that the onlooker would first see the beauty of the images before realizing they were portraying important and uncomfortable issues.
Taking these photos is risky. Oil companies and their security forces don't him to document the impact that oil exploitation has on the environment and on the inhabitants of the region. He's been arrested several times and has even been kidnapped by Delta militants who thought he might be a spy.
Despite the dramatic situations he encounters, Osodi has hope for the Delta region which he says is one of the most beautiful on the planet and has a lot more than oil to offer. The photographer also expressed his faith in the ordinary people he meets, "they are not passive victims, all they need is a fair ground to realize their potential but right now it's still difficult."
Ultimately, he hopes that his photos will make us think about the origin of the oil we consume without even paying much attention.
The book Delta Nigeria - The Rape of Paradise by George Osodi is published by Trolley Books. For more than five centuries the fortunes of the Niger Delta have been closely tied to that of the global economy. For its slave ports, then palm oil industry, and most recently, through the discovery of crude oil in the 1950s. Oil multinationals soon came to the fore, working in alliance with a local elite to strip the region of its wealth and despoil it. At the receiving end are the region's impoverished inhabitants: left with a poisoned environment, faced with a government that never cares and victims of rival armed militant groups laying claim to territories.