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July 22nd, 2009

Ed Kashi Travel Notes – More trials in the Niger Delta

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 trip was a constant trial. For photographers who have worked overseas, this post and his first will sound familiar — for those who view their images, it’s a compelling glimpse into how they are made.
Ogu is a poor community in the oil rich Niger Delta. Made up of ethnic Igaw people, it has been the seen of strife in recent years and continued neglect by the government.    Bathing in open, tin rimmed enclosures like these is the only way to wash in this poor community. While oil operations yield billions of dollars of wealth nearby, the people of Ogu and other communities like this one in the Niger Delta, live in abject poverty with no running water, no sewage and scant electricity. ©Ed Kashi

Bathing in open, tin rimmed enclosures like these is the only way to wash in the poor community of Ogu in the Niger Delta, where oil operations yield billions of dollars of wealth nearby. ©Ed Kashi

June 4, 2009

Today we went to the Bayelsa Palm Oil Farm, which everyone has been talking about in the interviews. Sure enough, the new processing plant is not completed (they are waiting for the Malaysians to come and build it). I shot the exterior of the new factory, which is not impressive, and made arrangements to return tomorrow and shoot the workers cutting palms off the trees.

I was thinking today how I always work from the outside, not just as an observer but also in terms of access and logistics. I am the outsider that most people don’t want around or they don’t want me to see what I want to look at. Yet in this project I should be an insider and in many situations I am treated that way. But mostly I feel like I’m working from the outside, trying to get a glimpse through the window shades at the action.

“You can’t go looking for it…First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.” —Henri Cartier-Bresson

I had a meeting about going to Akassa, a far off community by the Atlantic, to see civil society projects in action. After talking with my contacts about the security situation in the creeks, it became crystal clear I shouldn’t risk it.

Things were bad in 2006, when boats of gun-weilding young men would appear from nowhere, stop you, harass you, and take money. Now the situation has deteriorated to gang warfare for turf and control, but instead of mean streets they are creepy riverways and creeks. Plus, it’s so rare to see a white man in the creeks now, if I were to be seen by one of these boatloads of young men, I would be way too exposed and vulnerable. I can’t deal with this shit or take the risk, especially for this project. I said the only way I would go to Akassa or any of these riverside communities is by chopper or government boat.

June 5

We started the day at a local market to get B-roll of fish and periwinkles in buckets. It was a relaxed and lovely way to start the day, although I did get splattered by blood when I got too close to a saleswoman chopping a fish for her customer. We then went to the Bayelsa Palm Oil Farm, which is still a work in progress. The plantation itself is visually lovely, but the processor is not working yet, as I pointed out a couple of days ago, waiting for the Malaysians.

I was quite testy with Sokari and the subjects today. I realized that I am now in a mode where everything I’m seeing is through critical eyes and negative assumptions. Unfortunately it’s accurate, but not healthy or fair or positive…but then, who cares? I can be this way if I want and if it gives me the resolve to carry on. It was sunny this morning, which means dripping wet working from the heat and humidity.

June 6

Upon emerging to greet the afternoon, I met a calm, overcast day with nice winds that cooled the heat down. We went to cover a traditional wedding, which required a very short boat ride across the river from Yenagoa. It was another undeveloped and poor village, like all the rest of them here. The bride had to wait for the stylist to appear and make her up. Once she arrived things proceeded swiftly.

My back was burning with pain at this point and the sun came out, so it was also burning hot again. I was losing my ability to tune into the sequence of events and Sokari was keen for me to see the part where the groom has to choose between three covered women, not knowing which one is his bride. It was loud, colorful and hectic. I probably got some great stuff, but all I could think about was my discomfort, the hectic, screeching sounds and the chaos of the situation.

An oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta.  Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude. Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean it up. ©Ed Kashi

Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company to clean up an oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. ©Ed Kashi

June 8

I woke on this last Monday in the Delta bleary eyed and tired from another restless night of sleep. Some brisk Nescafe and exercise brought me back to life with a positive attitude to finish this thing strong. We first went back to the Palm Oil farm to finally film the harvesters cutting the palms down, but once again the workers were arguing with the contractors about getting paid. No go on that front, but did get the pruners whacking at the palm trees.

We then drove out of Yenagoa (yay!) to look at a couple of projects. On the way we stopped to shoot road work on the New Airport Road, a huge swath of light colored orange sand covering a wide area of flattened jungle. I got out of the car and started to shoot the one bulldozer working in the distance — not knowing that a JTF post was on the other side of the road.

Immediately they started yelling, “Oyibo, who gave you permission to snap!” I snapped back without hesitation, “THE GOVERNOR!!!” Sometimes my frustration builds up so much I forget to consider my responses. The soldiers were taken aback and before they could say anything else I pulled out the well-worn letter that Von’s office gave us at the beginning of the trip. I’ve used about 15 times so far and it usually works. They took the letter and said, “We’ll keep this…it’s for us!” I said, “No you won’t, that’s my only copy!” Thinking ahead, I then said, “We are going to Kayama next, so we’ll get you a copy and drop it off on the way back to Yenagoa.” He said, “No, you will take this engineer with you!” I said “Fine!”

So off we went to Kayama, about 15 miles ahead on this main road that connects Port Harcout to Warri. Along the way, the engineer suggested we go to another place where they are dredging sand for the road and we finally got some dredging footage. We then went to Kayama to show a huge land reclamation and erosion protection project. We got the copy and dropped it and the engineer off on the way back to Yenagoa.

I asked Sokari if I had come on too strong to the soldier and he laughed and said, “No!” He told me that after I said, “THE GOVERNOR!” another soldier said to the big soldier who confronted me, “Wow, he’s confident.“ So my bravado worked in this case. Not that I was aware of what I was doing. I’m in a trance-like state at this point, trying to accomplish the work, keep positive, and get back to my room to chill out, waiting to get out of here.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Have you ever gotten so frustrated on assignment that you said things that you wished you could take back? How did you deal with it?


  1. July 22nd, 2009 at 12:22 pm


    Its good to know just how pissed off other people get on trips!

  2. July 22nd, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Tim Matsui

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, Ed. It’s reaffirming to know others get just as frustrated on trips. I stewed earlier this year in Cambodia, waiting and waiting for events and permissions, always wondering if I was pushing too hard or not hard enough. It was difficult to stay positive and there were many times I wondered if I was wasting my time and resources.

  3. July 23rd, 2009 at 4:26 am


    I guess I’ve had an itty bitty experience in these environments with respect to you and others, you might even say non existent in comparison. I can understand the frustration emotionally, but not cognitively. As a guest in another country, taking images of people who are just doing their jobs or just acting consistent with their environment, I don’t see where or why rudeness has any part. I know your back was hurting you were hot, you were frustrated, you were short… But how the hell did they know WHO gave you permission?? And people are aghast when white people get robbed, beat up, smacked around, or worse in these areas.

  4. July 23rd, 2009 at 7:40 am

    ed kashi

    Dear 3,

    part of my frustration in these situations is not only how my work is hampered but also how I see the people are held back and also stressed by the conditions they must live in. I learned a long time ago not to judge others by the standards I am used to. In fact, quite often I get more pissed off when I return to America and see how entitled, wasteful and clueless so many of us can behave. I appreciate your insights here and reminds one to take heed of being too judgmental and clouding your views of other people and places. Part of the dialogue I hope to foster in this space is based on a level of candor and honesty, even vulnerability. Great things come out of putting your guard down.

  5. July 23rd, 2009 at 12:07 pm


    Hi Ed, Let’s see if I can respond to this directly: Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head– you are frustrated by the conditions you see that others live in. Think about how they feel. But I’m not sure that any of that translates when you have a ‘surly’ reaction. I’m not sure that people in those circumstances have the interest or awareness to rationalize your presence. I think such a reaction goes into a place where it is accumulated with any other negative impressions or encounters and goes to build a superficial idea of who/what a “foreigner” is, and in your case “a white foreigner” and maybe even further “a white foreigner with a camera”.

    Believe me, I get as frustrated as you (I work in a different context, but let’s say for all purposes and intents, we’re kind of doing the same thing), but I step back and realize that I am looking at it with the advantage of knowing what it’s like to NOT live that way, and with the advantage of being able to choose how I react and what I think of any given experience.

    Just the fact that you are able to put things into any perspective means that you kind of have an obligation to control that.

    Or maybe I can give you another example. I had a discussion with a Brazilian once who said that he saw no distinction between the political/economic policies of developed countries– we all want the same thing, so seen one (politically speaking), seen them all. His view was a sweeping one– right or wrong– we’re (developed countries) all spoiled and interested in our gain at the expense of others less fortunate.

    So, without belaboring the point, I appreciate your response, and just want to clarify that I am speaking about superficial impressions of others– which in these cases– is all that matters and is the difference between life and death sometimes. Even in well-intentioned responses. Unfortunately you can’t change what people before you have done to create an impression of “who” you are, but you can change what you do.

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