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July 16th, 2009

Ed Kashi Travel Notes – A return to the Niger Delta reiterates the challenges of overseas photojournalism

Posted by Ed Kashi

After publishing Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta in 2008, Ed returned to the Delta in May for nearly seven weeks to shoot a video for the State of Bayelsa. Despite his extensive experience in the area, the experience was a constant trial. For photographers who have worked overseas, this will no doubt sound familiar — for those who look at their images, it’s a compelling glimpse into how they are made.
The congested and broken down streets of the oil city of Warri, in the Niger Delta, where "hawkers" sell fuel illegally.

The congested and broken down streets of the oil city of Warri, in the Niger Delta, where hawkers sell fuel illegally.

May 15, 2009

Yenagoa….this is the capital city of the federal state of Bayelsa, which is only 12 years old. They have put me up in the bosom of the state, the Government House, a large compound for hosting guests and dignitaries. I have not been put in the VIP building. The furniture is broken, many of the lights don’t work, the TV is useless, there is no internet, the bed is a piece of foam on a piece of plywood, and it’s not clean. On the bright side, there is electricity, a functioning air conditioner and some lights. I have to focus on what I do have, not what I don’t, otherwise I’d go downhill fast.

This is so typical of Nigeria. I am in a grand compound, with a sense of decrepit grandeur on the surface. Yet inside so much is broken, unfinished or just done poorly. The irony is, being hosted by the government I have less than I would in one of the privately owned guest hotels in the town.

May 21

I went out in the afternoon with an engineer from the Dept. of Works to shoot road building. We went to a location where there was a giant Shell gas pipeline project about 30 yards away. I started to shoot innocuous activity: workers hanging out along the pipes, big machinery working in the muck of the swamps. All of a sudden, five Nigerian Shell workers in bright orange jump suits and hardhats start yelling and motioning me to come. I realized immediately I was in for it. Even though I had an official from the State Government and was not a journalist, they freaked and did the threatening, aggressive, and aggrieved trip on me. I didn’t get permission, etc, etc. Then they said I could not leave without erasing the tape.

Anytime this happens I get pissed and push back, which I did. I could see it was getting uglier and the fact I had a state official with me didn’t matter squat to them, so I called Von Kemedi, my main contact in the Delta since 1994. He threatened to send the MOPOLS, mobile police, to arrest them, and they let us go with further admonishment. What was upsetting and revealing was, when I said I was working for the State of Bayelsa, they said, “This isn’t the state of Bayelsa!” Shell owns the game down here and doesn’t have to answer to anyone.

“Shell Oil owns the game down here and doesn’t have to answer to anyone.”

May 25

Hitting a wall today of fatigue and burnout. So many appointments are changed or canceled last minute, Von continues to delay certain actions, Patterson Ogon (one of his deputies) is MIA, and I have to push everyone to get anything done. At least my core team is in place and seemingly responsible and loyal. If my assistant/videographer Sokari or my driver stop being responsible, I’ll truly lose it.

We started the day at a market by the river, next to a big new bridge. Then we went with a water commission official to a small village to show how potable water is brought to their community. It was raining the whole time, so I don’t know how the footage will look. Then we went back to the water commission HQ and did an interview with another Minister, of Agriculture. Then I hit the wall. I’ve been doing so good for the past days, but today something snapped. I have to get the rhythm back. I have no choice.

May 28

After our interview, we went to the Health Ministry to get details about an upcoming polio vaccine exercise, which is starting in a couple of days. We went to three offices, spoke to four different people, then went to a place where the vaccines are stored a few blocks away and spoke to someone there. He gave us a cell number and when Sokari called he basically was told we needed to come in and speak to this man. I hit a wall of frustration and lashed out at Sokari. I felt terrible afterwards and apologized a few times in the course of the day. I just get so frustrated with the hapless and clueless way so many people here work and think.

May 31

It was a whirlwind day with the Governor. First we started at the Govenment House Church, which is literally 100 yards from where I’m staying in the Government House compound. It’s incredible to think that this is exactly where that military helicopter dropped Elias (my fixer) and I off in June of 2006, handcuffed, after we were taken from the flow station out in Nembe creek. How life plays it’s tricks.

We finally got to Amassoma, which is almost an hour away on a mostly very rough road. We filmed the war canoe contest and got some good stuff, probably, although I was fried from all the pressures of the day and this trip. I realize I cannot control everything and, here, almost nothing, but sometimes it just becomes too much.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What’s the hardest country you’ve ever had to work in?


  1. July 16th, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Marc Climie

    While my trips to Nigeria for weddings were nothing like the experiences Ed has had (I won’t take weddings in Delta State), I find myself nodding in agreement to all the difficulties he’s encountered. My very first trip there and my very first day saw my driver forcibly arrested and taken away, leaving me in Lagos alone with only cell contact with my client and no uniquely recognizable landmarks for them to find me. One and a half uncomfortable hours later, I was found by my hosts. It turns out it was just a way to extort some money from the family.

    I feel like I’ve been quite lucky on those trips, but I make sure I am with someone in the family, and they make sure I stay out of trouble. Still, everything there is fast and loose, and the rules change with the direction of the wind. Ed is right in that nothing works, not even new things. Nothing is on time. Schedules are a fantasy. The difficult nature of just getting around and getting things done means things are done when they get done. Forget time. Just go.

    But the people I have been with have been genuinely lovely and are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and I’m very happy to have experienced their hospitality. They do the best with what they have.

  2. July 16th, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Michael Friberg

    I recently shot a documentary in Northern Uganda and I can totally relate to this. EVERYTHING is canceled at the last minute. NOTHING is on time. Nothing makes sense, and everybody is trying to get something from you. It feels like every second of footage or roll of film shot is like climbing uphill with a bungee cord attached to a weight at the bottom of the hill. Ultimately you just have to let go and do what you can without loosing control. I stayed composed for the most part but by god there were times when I thought I was going to murder somebody with my tripod.

  3. July 16th, 2009 at 10:57 am


    this sounds like italy.

  4. July 17th, 2009 at 2:39 am


    This sums up working in Africa (ok maybe elsewhere, but Africa has its own pace)

    Trying to get stuff done here, on a timely basis, is impossible. I guess you get used to it in the end, but damn it’s hard work.

  5. July 17th, 2009 at 10:51 am


    Try Ethiopia … the Head of Save The Children once told me he was impressed if just one thing got done, and he had 800 staff.

    Thanks for the insight

  6. July 20th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    john densky

    I just returned from Nigeria and man oh man I can echo some of those sentiments! Nigeria by and large was the most difficult place to photograph I have ever photographed. From the maddening “Africa time” to the officials who come out of the wood work at the sight of a camera or onjibo.

    Amazing bunch of folks I have met there but very, very simple tasks can turn into multiple day herculean events with little one can do save go along for the ride.

    I am just surprised at the “electricity” part Ed!?!? How can you sleep through the droning of those generators?


  7. July 21st, 2009 at 7:09 am

    ed kashi

    John, I was lucky where I was staying in the Government House..their generators were quiet and far away. But it’s true in these countries you must learn to live with the constant drone of generators. Think about what it’s like for the people living there all the time.

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