Ed Kashi

The Curse of the Black Gold





July 24, 2010


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 Gold.

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 thrilled.

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: [Laughs]

EK: But…

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 mainstream media.

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.

BR: Mmh.

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 beginning.

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 movie Avatar?

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 really about?

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 nuanced way.

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.

BR: Yup.

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 new jobs.

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. There is 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.

EK: Bye-bye.

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