Curse of the Black Gold:
Photographs by Ed Kashi
August 2008

by Dirck Halstead

As anybody who has filled up his or her SUV recently, and watched the cost to do so rise to over $100, is painfully aware, a part of our daily ritual has become prohibitively expensive. All the warnings that went unheeded about our dependence on petroleum becoming unsustainable are now a fearful reality.

Nigeria supplies nearly 5 percent of the world's oil. The government rakes in 2.2 billion dollars each and every week. Yet, virtually none of this money works its way down to provide any benefits for its impoverished citizens, who live in abject poverty, their air fouled by noxious clouds from burning petroleum, their food supply poisoned.

In July 2004, Ed Kashi's work in Iraq brought him to the attention of Michael Watts, a Berkeley-based scholar who had been studying the issues of oil and conflict for over 30 years. With his guidance Ed returned to Nigeria in late 2005, and again in 2006, to tell the story. His extensive coverage has resulted in a compelling new book, "Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta," which exposes the profound cost – human, environmental and geopolitical – of rapacious oil companies in West Africa.

Ed Kashi provides a stirring example of the kind of photojournalism that has been practiced over the years by the greats of this profession. People like W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, Carl Mydans, James Nachtwey and Russell Lee who took on major issues, and immersed themselves in often-hostile environments to tell stories of major significance.

Ed received his first NEA grant for his first major documentary project, a study of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. He has gone on to win two World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year competitions with his work which has led to four other books: "When the Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds," "The Protestants: No Surrender," "Denied: The Crisis of America's Uninsured," and the award-winning "Aging In America: The Years Ahead," the culmination of an eight-year photo project, which The Digital Journalist featured in 2003 []. Ed's next book, "Three," is scheduled for publication in 2009.

Although he works in the traditions of still photojournalism, Ed is also on the leading edge of multimedia. He carries a video camera with him on his travels, and often works with his wife, Julie Winokur, who is a filmmaker. They are now working on a documentary version of "Curse of the Black Gold."

A military struggle is currently taking place in the Niger Delta as state security forces battle to contain a militant group, MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), which stages attacks on government and oil installations. They are responsible for "shutting in" approximately 900,000 barrels a day by making direct attacks on facilities, taking hostages and creating problems for the oil industry.

Ed had unique access to these armed rebels, traveling with them through the jungles and rivers of The Delta.

"The Niger Delta is one of the most difficult places I've ever worked," Ed writes. "The people are hesitant and suspicious of outsiders, the terrain is tricky with remote areas reachable only by small boats and along every road and waterway danger lurks for the intruder."

Early in his documentation of The Delta, government security forces detained him along with his guide, Elias Courson, They were moved from one location to another, and with each move the danger grew. As they were being driven through the jungle, Ed says, "Elias drew near to me and whispered, 'this is death.' I was beyond my wits, formulating in my mind all the possible scenarios and worrying I would never see [his wife Julie] or my kids again."

Throughout "Curse of the Black Gold" Ed reveals a "Dante's Inferno"-like land that has been devastated by what should have been a boon to its people. As important as his photographs are the accompanying texts by some of the most prominent intellectuals and critics of contemporary Nigeria. Michael Watts, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001 for his work on the impact of oil in Africa, has edited the book.

We consider it to be an important book that serves as a stark reminder of the cost to others of our dependence on oil.

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© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from