Sami Israel ’19 and Teague Costello ’19
Nigerian photographer George Osodi is a strong believer in the camera’s ability to incite change. This belief led to his career as a photojournalist, which greatly influenced his work as an artist. His Oil Rich Niger Delta (2003–2007) series is one of his most well-known projects and put him on the map of the contemporary African art world. The series, comprising two hundred images, is an artistic photographic reportage of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of oil in the Niger Delta region. It provides a complex portrayal of the Niger Delta, exposing the atrocities of Western oil companies, the neglect of the Nigerian government, and the plight of local people caught in the middle. Osodi emphasized that he wanted the focus of the series to be on the “real people” of the Delta: they are the ones who suffer from this environmental degradation; they are the forgotten victims of the world’s insatiable appetite for oil.
The artist captures the ways in which oil has not only shaped the people of the Delta’s physical environment but also the structure of their communities. For instance, traditional means of governance has given way to rebel militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). MEND and other groups are thirsty for a portion of the oil revenues; as is, virtually none of the money made from the oil trade goes back to the Delta. One tactic the militants use to pressure the government is “oil bunkering,” in which they purposefully rupture the pipes of major oil companies, thereby causing massive explosions. An example of this can be seen in the image Blackened Explosion, which portrays smoke and flames billowing from a pipeline ruptured by militants. It has been suggested that the explosion is representative of the explosive neocolonial relationship between the Niger Delta and Western oil companies. While the oil industry causes mass pollution and health problems for the people of the Delta, it also stimulates the Nigerian economy. As other writers have noted, this complexity and tension can be seen in the depth and variety of blackness present in the explosion. The intense contrast between the black clouds of smoke and flames against the landscape embodies Osodi’s desire to portray the “beauty of ugliness.” The explosion overwhelms the composition of the photograph, suggesting the ways in which the oil industry suffocates the region. Despite the violence of this image and many others in the series, Osodi states, “The Niger Delta was and is a beautiful place.”(1)