The Curse of the Black Gold
Bill Ryan (BR): This is Bill Ryan here, from Project Avalon, and it
is the 24th of July, 2010. I’m very privileged to be talking to Ed
Kashi. And those of you who are acquainted with my own work know that
usually we are talking about whistleblowers, black projects,
government cover-ups. Various things that should be in the
news that the public don’t get to hear very much about, if
anything. And this is the link to Ed Kashi’s work because I was
hugely taken, Ed, by your wonderful short film, Curse of the Black
And this is the connection that I have made with you now. I used to
live in Nigeria when I was a kid, and your little film was very
powerful and had a very strong impact on me and I was drawn to
contact you because this is the platform, if you want to take it, to
talk about your work, to talk about your passion and to talk about
what it is that motivates you to bring the truth to the people who
aren’t getting it in any other way. And, I would love you to tell
us all about who you are.
Ed Kashi (EK): Well, Bill, thank you very much. It's great to speak
with you. I’m a photojournalist based in the New York area, the New
York City area, and I have been working for about 30 years in this
field. And I wish I could say I had the kind of consciousness and
determination from the very beginning that I have now for a subject
like the Niger Delta, and more specifically the economic inequity,
the environmental disaster that has formed there over the last 50
years since oil was discovered and was begun to be exploited.
And I’ll tell you what drives me. There are many things that drive
me with my work. I am keenly interested in social and political
issues, and I’m only one person, only one journalist, but I try to
focus on subjects that either really stir my passion or that I might
have some personal connection to.
BR: For people who haven’t seen your movie, to encourage people to
take eight minutes of their time to watch it, can you give your own
summary of Curse of the Black Gold, what it's about, and the
vitally important message that it represents.
EK: Well, so my work in the Niger Delta which started in 2004 and
has resulted as of now in a book called Curse of the Black Gold,
50 years of Oil in the Niger Delta, and actually it's out of
print. It has been reprinted just this June as a soft-cover book so
it's a little cheaper and a little lighter, because I’m keen to get
this into the hands of students.
And then, as a companion piece to it, we produced a film of the same
name, Curse of the Black Gold,
and it's about seven-and-a-half minutes long. And all of this work is
really predicated on the idea that ‘what has 50 years of oil and
gas exploration and exploitation in the Niger Delta brought to the
people of the Niger Delta?’
The Niger Delta is the third largest wetlands in the world, second
largest in Africa, you know, hugely important environmental
ecosystem. It also happens to possess vast amounts of oil and
gas. And, incidentally, the United States takes 50 percent of the
output of this region. So, on a strategic level for the United
States, [it is] an incredibly important source of oil and energy.
But I wanted to take a look at what is the impact of this, and what I
found is that 50 years of oil in the Niger Delta has brought ruin to
the environment. It has brought ruin to the progress of... it has
held back development in this area, what was a poor area of Nigeria
is certainly the poorest area. I mean how ironic that something like
85 to 90 percent of the wealth, of the economic wealth of the
Nigerian federal government, comes from this region, and yet it's the
poorest part of the country.
Now, from some seasoned folks, they might roll their eyes, going,
‘Yeah boy, I’ve heard that story before.’ Well, you know what?
Especially for people in America, I can’t truck that anymore,
because every time you go to the gas station, and every time you turn
on a light-switch, you're burning Nigerian energy. And it's not okay.
It is not okay anymore to just say, ‘Oh, that's over in Africa or
that's somewhere else in the world.’ Because ultimately, this
stuff's going to run out! So, it’s like, we better start figuring
out now, how, what is the alternative going to be.
And I always say whenever I speak to young people, although a person
of any age is welcome to take on this challenge, is ‘please come up
with a new source of energy for us, and you will go down as the most
important human being that ever lived,’ so we can move away from
these evil and corrosive – I’m sorry, I hate to use the word
‘evil,’ but there is no religious connotation here, but it truly
is evil from the place it comes from as witnessed in the Gulf
disaster, to the process of distributing it, refining it, using it.
Like, there is no part of the process of oil that isn’t
destructive. The only thing it does, besides feed our addiction for
energy, is it enriches a small group of people, or it enriches
governments that are already very corrupt and allow them to continue
to be more corrupt. And, I tell you, if there's something we learned
from the Gulf disaster, it's that the U.S. government isn't a hell of
a lot better than the Nigerian government. They are better, but, you
know, they are still far from perfect.
BR: Got it. And if evil is defined as the absence of good, then you
could say that even if there is no deliberate intention to harm
people, there is certainly a stone-cold, self-interested
heartlessness that is chilling in its impact given the power that it
has behind it.
EK: That is beautifully said and it captures, in a way, one of the
essences of my feeling, like the emotional visceral reaction that I
have, that I get to what is going on in the Niger Delta. And it’s
like, how cynical, how cynical some people, business people,
corporate and governmental
people can be. Because they are not stupid. They have to know what's
going on. Or are they that hard-bitten and...? But it’s cynical,
it’s just cynical.
You know, I can’t believe that in fifty years there aren’t, there
isn’t this humming network of technical institutes spread out
through the Niger Delta, teaching and educating and training the
local people to be involved in this vital industry, you know. But no,
there is none of that.
So all you have is this intense hatred and aggression of the local
people towards the oil industry. Then the oil companies, they don’t
have to care about the environment because it's not
their place. And, in fact, even the Nigerian government and the
Nigerian military forces that operate there, the joint task force, they
don’t really care about that part of Nigeria because
they're from different ethnic groups. So we have this cynical, kind
of … really horrible situation going on there.
And, again, we can’t, in this interconnected world, we can’t deny
this is going on anymore! And so I hope [that]
the work I’m doing and the way that it is being utilized by
organizations like Oxfam America, Amnesty International, many other
NGOs in the UK, Publish What You Pay... There is a whole movement to
force more transparency.
As a matter of fact, the new finance bill that was just passed in the
United States, a piece of it encompassed legislation that Oxfam
America has been pushing, and organizations in the UK as well, to
force extractive industries to be more transparent in where are they
working, how much are they making and where are those funds going.
And so, that is a step in the right direction. And I’m heartened
and humbled if my work can have even the tiniest, tiniest bit of
impact or be utilized to educate and move forward legislation,
because ultimately that's what this is about: how do we effect
change? Because, when I look at my profession of photojournalism,
which, I've been told for a decade now, is dying and is becoming
irrelevant... I don’t believe that, because the power of the image
continues to impact people. And, also, I think the essence of
photojournalism is to make the world a better place.
And I think maybe we've lost that and we've gotten almost, like,
fetishistically absorbed in showing how bad the world is, you know,
and death and war, and destruction and famine and disease and
poverty, and all these things, which we must continue
to bear witness to. But,
I think if we want to have – again I’m so absorbed in this idea
of sustainability in almost everything – if we want to have a
sustainable impact, or have an impact that helps us to be sustainable
on this earth, I think we need to show solutions as well. So, anytime
my work can be connected to solutions, I’m absolutely humbled and
The Niger Delta was a subject that sort of fell into my lap through
the good graces of Professor Michael Watts at Berkeley, who is a
British citizen, originally, and he's been living in America for
quite a while. And he's been going to the Niger Delta for 30 years.
And it was through him that I became acquainted with this issue, but
once he introduced me to it, I just fell head over heels, quite
frankly, with passion, with anger, with disgust, with concern.
And now, in a way, the ills of the Niger Delta, the symptoms of the
problems of what is going on there, I see more and more now as
connected to this sort of ‘whole human race on this earth’ and
how we are living in an unsustainable way. And it used to be that in
the West we might feel guilty or maybe have some amount of awareness
of the resources that we consume and,
quite frankly, how much we waste in that consumption style, the
lifestyle we have.
But what is so scary now, is that it's happening in the developing
world as well, and so I think the Niger Delta is emblematic, or, if
you like, an example of how essentially fossil fuel-based
civilization is unsustainable. And as we witness what is happening
now in the Gulf – even though it seems, thank goodness, that they
have capped that well – it's a tragedy.
It's a … dilemma, it's an existential dilemma to think about what's
been going on in the Gulf. And yet, in the Niger Delta, cumulatively,
it's much worse there than what has happened in the Gulf.
BR: It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it, that because this
happened on our doorsteps in the first world, a lot of people have
woken up. And one of the things I have been saying to anyone who is
in a position to hear it, is that in a weird kind of way, this is a
good thing, because listen, this isn’t unique. We have been
trashing our planet systematically ever since the industrial
revolution, and when the cameras aren't there, or when it’s not
being reported on YouTube and Facebook, nobody cares and nobody
knows, and people get on with their blinkered lives. And, in a way,
it is a wake up call. Would you agree with that?
EK: Yeah. It's a wake up call and, in a sense, what it has done is
it’s sort of pulled the curtain back from what is called ‘the
hydrocarbon myth.’ For most of us, not just in the developing
world, anywhere in the world where you take it for granted that when
you go to a light-switch, it goes on, or when you go to the petrol
station, they have gas, you know – which is sort of most of the
Western world, lots of Asia, many parts of the world actually, even
parts of Africa – you don’t think about where does it come from.
What is the cost? What is the environmental cost? And, in a more
nuanced way, what is the human cost?
And so, this tragedy in the Gulf has pulled the curtain back from the
hydrocarbon myth, which the oil companies and the participating
governments, like in Nigeria, and you could say, quite frankly, in
the U.K. or the U.S. as well, they're happy for us to believe that
it's no sweat, it's real easy, you know, isn’t it beautiful? We
have a bounty of energy and it's all clean. You never see
anything. You never see the impact of the extraction of oil and gas.
So, in that sense, it's a good thing.
But, you know, like the protest in Tehran last year after the
disputed election, where you had Twitter, especially Twitter, sort of
take on a whole new role, if you like, in political activism, and
also showing events behind this sort of curtain, the veil of secrecy
that a country like Iran often and can deploys in terms of media
coverage and so forth. I hope that this is more effective, quite
frankly, than what happened in Iran. Because it seemed like there was
a glimmer of hope. But the truth is, the folks who are in control
have, still maintain a very tight grip.
It's not a clean analogy, but I do think about this moment we are in
where we have all these new facilities and ways to communicate and,
if you'd like, do end-runs around government-controlled media or
controlling governments. But, at the end of the day, it's still
really hard to get these messages out and make them stick.
That’s the big thing, is make them stick.
You know, there is nobody you wouldn’t talk to in America and in
many parts of the world who wouldn’t feel disgusted or frightened
by what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico. But the question is,
what's going to be going on in a month from now, in five months from
now, in six months from now?
And moreover, how is President Obama and politicians in America and
corporate leaders going to respond to this? Already we hear that a
bunch of the oil majors are going to band together and spend a
billion or more dollars to create some super-duper oil cleanup device
or mechanism for the next spill, and that's great. That is great! But
why wasn’t that already in place? We force our children to be in
car seats, and yet we will drill miles down into the earth and not
have a backup plan if things go wrong?
BR: Exactly. Where are the airbags? Yeah, I completely agree with
you. Unfortunately, as well you are talking about pulling back the
veil, there are these questions being asked now, but it's just so sad
that we don’t have the foresight to anticipate these questions
before we have our nose rubbed in them.
I would like to ask you about the role of the mainstream media. This
is such a hugely interesting topic to me. What is the role of the
mainstream media? How can you influence it? How do you compete with
all the overload of information that is out there? Because that's
related to how things stick, isn’t it? What can people like you and
I and thousands of others, who are picking up their cameras and their
microphones and trying to get information out there, what can we do
to make our job more effective?
EK: Well, you know, it's incredible how the media, how my profession
and my life is being impacted by these changes that are going on. The
digital revolution, I guess, is fueling it, but the economic turmoil
and the impact of what's going on economically and, to a large
degree, politically, certainly in the United States, has impacted the
media. I really saw that trend ten years ago, even before 9/11, but
after 9/11 in particular, where the media became, in a sense, more –
both economically and politically – conservative in America.
And we've also in many ways given up the... Well, this is going to be
a bit of digression, but I feel that when, like, Fox News – which
is viewed as legitimate media by many people in the United States,
maybe even people in the world – when they say that Obama is a
socialist, just as an example, it’s like, ‘Okay guys, we need
like a civics education here.’ Because we... No, this is like
telling me the sky is green. So, how can we have a conversation?
Where can we even begin? Because we are not agreeing on the most
basic definitions of reality. I’m not being partisan. I’m just
being a human being that actually cares about things and wants us all
to move forward together to a better place. Ultimately, man is still
very primitive and we are still very tribal. Even the most modern of
us can be. Where was I going with that? Reel me back in. [Laughs]
BR: This a huge landscape which we can explore if we have enough
time. And it was really asking a question which I don’t have the
answers to myself. And that is that, if we have the resources to
present information to the world, how do we do this in such a way
that it actually makes a difference? What does the future present for
small alternative guerilla filmmakers and photographers and
journalists who are going out there, who aren’t in the pay of the
EK: Well, there is great opportunity and thank you for reeling me
back in here. [laughs] So, to address this and your previous
question, I mean the way I see it now is, in a sense we need to teach
media literacy, especially to our young, because you can’t just
rely on one source of information – I don’t care if it is
alternative or mainstream – to really be fully educated and aware
of what's going on in the world today.
And you need to understand how to read media, not just go to a
variety of sources, whether it's traditional media, as in newspapers
and magazines, broadcast television, but also the Internet now. Then
you have magazines on the left, magazines on the right, magazines in
the middle, even our newspapers! Like in the UK, the Telegraph
and The Times would be a little more conservative, and the
Guardian would be a little more to the left.
So you have to know where your sources are coming from. But what I
see, and in a sense this movie Curse of the Black Gold that
we've created and the work that I have done is a fine example of
this, where, as relatively modest media producers, if you like, even
with the connection to National Geographic, who, by the way,
was responsible for helping to finance a large part of the fieldwork
on this project...
Yeah, I mean, I think it is important to understand that National
Geographic is, while what it publishes and the, how can I put it,
the risks or lack of risks they might take in what they actually
publish, at least it is accurate. I have never worked for any other
media outlet that is so assiduous about fact-checking and making sure
they get it right. But also, ultimately, you know, their heart is in
the right place. It's just very hard for them to break out of this
sort of mold that they're in.
EK: So I was very impressed and gratified when they accepted my
proposal on the Niger Delta and then published some tough pictures as
well. You know, I see all of this working together, that I produce
this piece with my wife Julie Winokur, film editor and a multimedia
producer. And some of the field work I've invested my own money. Some
of it, the University of California at Berkeley helped me out with. A
large part of it, funds from National Geographic magazine. And
then we spend our own money to produce this piece.
So we're not... we’re actually losing money on this particular
multimedia film, but then the film, as you are a part of this
movement, is adopted and used by people all over the world, from the
University of Michigan or Harvard or Berkeley or Syracuse University,
to a high school in Palo Alto, to countless, countless places,
galleries, museums, organizations, foundations, Oxfam America,
Amnesty International. This is the moment and this is the future.
So, as I like to say, especially to sort of young [students of]
photojournalism, but anybody really, is, 10 or 20 years ago my goal
was, get my pictures in the National Geographic magazine, get
my pictures in the New York Times magazine,
or Stern or The Independent, whatever, and then my job
was done. Well, you know what? That's not the case anymore. As hard
as it is – and in many ways, it's even harder to get one’s images
and work in those publications – if you do, it's only the
Because, ultimately, this work, these media materials that people
like myself create about issues like the Niger Delta – which are
hard to access, tough to understand, incredibly important for people
to know about – we have to work now in concert with academia, the
nonprofit world, the charity world, the NGO world, foundations if I
didn’t already say that, and in some cases even corporations!
You know, I’m a real believer in making this whole thing inclusive,
because corporations are going to get screwed if we go under as well.
[laughs] You know what I mean? They're a part of this risk game we’re
playing of basically living in an unsustainable manner.
Now, while it's much harder to convince them, these huge
corporations, to get involved, because they perceive it as having
more to lose, I just feel that as many people, as many institutions
we can have in this conversation, the better. Because ultimately, we are
all in this together.
And ultimately, I don’t begrudge a corporation if they make huge
profits, as long as they do their job really damn well. And they
protect people, and they protect the environment. And they
contribute, they contribute. Because we need institutions, whether
they're government or they're private, to come through and do a damn
good job at what they do. We can’t do this alone anymore.
BR: Very good, Ed. That’s a wonderful little presentation. I do
appreciate that. Let me ask you a couple of questions. One of them is
a simple one and that is, what was your personal reaction to the
EK: In terms of Avatar, it was funny when I was sitting
there, besides being absorbed in the sort of technical brilliance or
the amazing quality of how the film was made technically and all
that, and excepting the fact that it is a very hackneyed plot, I also
felt like, in a chilling way, Cameron had captured the essence of
what is going on in the Niger Delta.
Obviously, albeit with huge dramatics and over-the-top… you know,
it’s excessive, it's excessive. Like so much of Hollywood and,
frankly, American society and culture is. But the essence of it, in
its purest sense, was really absolutely connected to what is going on
in the Niger Delta.
This idea of outsiders coming into some place that has rich resources
and doing whatever it takes to get that resource, not caring about
the people, not caring about the environment. And not caring about
the sustainability of even their own business operations. But will
the average person who sees Avatar get that? I don’t think
so. I don’t know. I don’t know.
BR: I think that they probably do, actually. And for me, I mean, I
agree with everything that you say about the movie, but the raw
emotional impact of this film, in broad brush terms for me, in a
different way, it did say everything that you have been trying to
talk about is going on on planet Earth when our eyes are turned away,
and that's obviously why I asked the question.
EK: Well, and you know, Bill, I mean, it’s interesting when you
think about it. As great as it would be to have my work be taught in
schools to educate young people, quite frankly, Avatar should
be taught in some, like, sort of Cliff Notes version of it. Or, hey,
what kid, under whatever age-range makes sense – I don’t know,
eight to sixteen or something – sit them through Avatar in
class, and then have some sort of a class discussion. What is this
You know, I love those classes I had when I was in high school, those
English literature classes where we would read some great novel, and
then this wonderful teacher would prompt these conversations that not
just was about the structure but also about the meaning, and it is a
way to teach our young people how to think in a deep and
And in a sense, Avatar could be a great launching-pad for
conversations like this, with young people to understand.
Like, do you know where your energy comes from? Do you even think
about that? And do you understand the implications of what if that
energy source failed? What would happen? How would it impact your
daily life? How would you feel if when you went home tonight, there
was no electricity at your house? So you couldn’t do Facebook and
you couldn’t text, and you couldn’t IM and you couldn’t watch
TV. You couldn’t play on the Xbox. How would you feel?
And would you understand, you know, why? Like if there was another
oil embargo or some... whatever, some disruptive action that stopped
the seemingly endless and cheap flow of energy to our society. I know
it would impact me because you and I couldn’t even be having this
conversation now. Almost everything I do now as a digital
photographer is dependent on energy.
BR: It’s a little scary, isn’t it?
EK: It’s hugely scary in the same way that I love having my iPhone
or Smartphone, and I love that I can be in the middle of the Niger
Delta in the most bizarre, out-of-the-place situation, but I can text
my wife to find out the score of my son’s baseball game in New
Jersey, in real time.
EK: So, I mean, hey, I love all of these, the facilities, the
comforts of… you know. It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant. But, it
comes at a price. [laughs] And I just, you know, like, what I hope
and urge all of us, our governments, our research institutions, our
corporations, all of us to, we have got to figure out a way to move
away from fossil fuel. We’ve got to.
And if the greed, if the greed of these oil companies and the
governments that make money from them persist to the point where
their forward planning will be based on what is the longest period of
time we can stretch out profits off of this resource, we’re
screwed. We are screwed. Because we cannot be doing this for another
50 years. We just can’t.
We have got to begin our exit strategy away from oil in particular.
You know, I’m no scientist. I don’t know if gas is really any
better. I don’t know, in terms of the environmental impact and all
of that. I mean, it seems to be a bit of a cleaner source of energy.
But ultimately, we should be pushing headlong into solar.
You know, it kills me when I hear that the Chinese – and I have
nothing against the Chinese, and I don’t view this as a zero-sum
game where the U.S. has to prevail over China or any other country –
but it kills me that the United States is abdicating the
technological lead on solar energy production to China, and I would
think this should be a wake up call for all of the brilliant
engineers and researchers and scientists in the United States and
throughout the world, to come up with ways to move forward in these
other alternative energy sources, because they will create so many
They will bring down the price of all this stuff. And, as always
happens, there will be technological innovation. So, what are we
waiting for? What are we waiting for? And I know that solar, and
wind, and water, hydro, these are not... it’s still... they're not
the panaceas. I mean nuclear... I’m very, I'm troubled by nuclear,
you know, in some ways it seems like the simplest solution. And I
don’t know, is it true that the French get something like 90
percent of their energy from nuclear? Or some very high percentage.
BR: It’s a high percentage.
EK: Yeah, and, I mean, they seem to have done a fine job and... but
I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know is, we have got to
move away from oil. And to bring it back to the beginning, the
tragedy in the Gulf should be a wake up call. It should be a wake up
call. That until we wean ourselves off of oil, we had better come up
with a damn better way to do it and invest that extra money to be
prepared with a fallback plan.
You know, I don’t go into the field with one camera. I go into the
field with two or three cameras. [laughs] So, and I’m just a speck.
If you are BP or some major oil company, where every day you are
making hundreds of millions of dollars… Come on guys, can’t you
invest 500 million dollars or whatever it is in a second backup
system? It's not even smart business. [laughs]
BR: All right. That’s a wonderful Saturday morning rant, Ed. I
salute you for it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to you and I
admire your passion and your commitment, and I wish you all the best
for all of your work. There is a whole conversation that we haven’t
had about where you will be going next, what you really care about,
what the Niger Delta has impelled and propelled you to pay attention
to you now which are going to be your future projects.
I know that we don’t have time for that right now because you have
got to get out of the door, but I want to do everything I can do to
steer people towards your work and to follow your work. For anyone
here listening to this who doubts the power of the visual image, go
check out Ed’s website, edkashi.com.
stuff there that will stir your soul, I promise you. It’s
wonderful stuff and thank you Ed for everything that you are doing.
EK: Thank you Bill. Take care, man.
BR: All right. Bye-bye.
here for the audio recording