With the recent protests against huge fuel subsidy cuts, and as the country reels from a spate of deadly sectarian bombings, there have been a lot of powerful photographs from Nigeria in the news of late. There are also a number of even more powerful (graphic) images on Flickr and Twitter, images that I haven’t seen published in the mainstream media. So it seems timely to publish this post which I’ve had in draft for a while about George Osodi‘s work.
A Nigerian photographer, Osodi has spent much of the last ten years photographing in the Niger Delta region and the sprawling city of Lagos. He says it took him a year or two to realise that mostly that meant photographing oil – and that once he’d realised that, there was no going back. Pollution, protests and conflict are constant themes for the people of the Delta, and they are themes that run through almost every one of Osodi’s pictures. But he didn’t imagine that nearly a decade down the line he’d be sat in a trendy photo gallery in east London, talking about how he got there.
But that’s where he was, just before Christmas last year, in Foto 8’s shiny new space in Shoreditch, telling his extraordinary story. It didn’t quite cost him his job – he gave up a position working in a bank in order to become a photographer in the first place – but it did cost him pretty much everything else. His friends thought he was crazy and shunned him, his girlfriend left him too; he sold his car and then had to let go his apartment in order to carry on funding taking pictures. He taught himself photography, and how to process film – first black-and-white, then colour. At one point he says that all he owned was a t-shirt, a pair of jeans and a camera. What he didn’t realise was how dangerous trying to photograph the oil industry would be. He’s been kidnapped by militants and threatened by oil company security guards alike.
Luckily though, his series of photographs, Oil Rich Niger Delta, are an incredible testament to his commitment and belief in the decision he made. Recently published as Delta Nigeria: the Rape of Paradise by Trolley Books, the series is a relentless visual assault, by turns horrific, beautiful, distressing and uplifting. The music that accompanies the slideshow embedded below is at once perfect and incongruous, but the book somehow conveys exactly this kind of soundtrack simply through the images themselves.
There’s an obvious similarity between Osodi’s images and those of the American photojournalist Ed Kashi, whose book Curse of the Black Gold was shot over broadly the same time period. And Christian Lutz’s work also provides an alternative, in some ways more detached, view of the Niger Delta, by depicting the lives of people working within the oil industry, as opposed to those outside it. But, being from Lagos and the Niger Delta, there’s something different about Osodi’s images, a closeness and an immediacy that could only come from being Nigerian himself.
Osodi was lucky enough to get offered a position as a photographer for a Lagos newspaper a few years ago, then as a stringer for AP, and his work started to get noticed. Now he has the book out, is represented by Panos Pictures and his work is being collected by art buyers and curators alike.
Back in December, the BBC News website profiled the publication of ‘Nigerians Behind the Lens‘, a collection of contemporary Nigerian photography. This includes some of Osodi’s work, but it also presents some alternative views of modern Nigeria, through the work of a range of commercial and editorial photographers. This provides some welcome balance – of course there must be other stories to be told in Nigeria, beyond those about oil. I’ve worked on a couple of development ‘success’ stories photostories from Nigeria, on getting more women into teaching and girls into school, and improving access to maternal healthcare, but there must be many more. I’d love to be able to commission someone like George to document some of the other stories in Nigeria, some of the long-term development challenges and successes.
Osodi speaks profoundly about his love for Nigeria, the beauty of the country, and the hope of its people, despite the conflict in the Delta:
“I just wanted to document what’s happened here for the future of Nigeria, so that people know what it took. I wanted to put a face to this place, this paradise lost”
Nigeria is facing a crisis at the moment. Luckily it has citizens like George Osodi who are there to document it, to force us to look, to force us to help its people to overcome.
You can see more photoessays about oil, including some of Ed Kashi’s and Christian Lutz’s work (although oddly, not Osodi’s?) in Foto8 magazine’s oil-themed issue, The Legacy of Oil, which was published in winter 2010.