Auto / Energy

Curse of the black gold


Year: 2008

Photographer: Ed Kashi.

Editor: Michael Watts

Type: academic/popular book.

Full reference: Watts, M. (ed) (2008) Curse of the black gold: 50 years of oil in the Niger Delta. New York: Powerhouse.

Availability: (£29.25 sold out link [March 2011], ($28.84 limited stock link [March 2011])

Page reference: Goodbrook, A., Middleton, J., Pickard, L., Plumb, J., Rowe, E. & Wheatley, M. (2011) Curse of the black gold: 50 years of oil in the Niger Delta. ( last accessed <insert date here>)

Trailer / film


This book exposes the reality of oil’s impact and the absence of sustainable development in its wake, providing a compelling pictorial history of one of the world’s great deltaic areas (Source: Kashi & Watts 2010, np link).

As the mammoth oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico now places our petroleum consumption under closer scrutiny, it’s somewhat serendipitous that photojournalist Ed Kashi’s book exposing one of the longest running oil disasters in history should go into second print … Nigeria’s much-heralded role as one of the world’s top oil suppliers has a dark underbelly that isn’t often reported (Source: Meyer 2010, np link). 

This oversized pictorial work documents the consequences of 50 years of oil exploration and production in Nigeria, the sixth-largest oil producer in the world. Editor Watts (geography, Univ. of California, Berkeley) provides an introductory essay documenting Nigeria’s oil interests and the resulting environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, and community conflicts that have plagued the region. Other essays written by prominent Nigerian journalists and human rights activists bear witness to the ongoing struggles of local communities, illustrating the paradox of poverty in the midst of massive oil revenues. Accompanying the essays are powerful photographs by photojournalist Kashi that capture local leaders, armed militants, oil workers, and nameless villagers, all of whose fates are inextricably linked (Source: Anon nd, np link).

Curse of the Black Gold ...traces the 50-year history of Nigeria’s oil interests and the resulting environmental degradation and community conflicts that have plagued the region….set against a backdrop of what has been called the scramble for African oil, Curse of the Black Gold is the first body of work to document the consequences of a half-century of oil exploration and production in one of the world’s foremost centers of biodiversity, the Niger Delta (Source: Anon 2010a, np link).

Someone might buy Curse of the Black Gold for its essays. ... More likely, though, readers will learn just as much or more from Ed Kashi’s photographs of this troubled region (Source: Lang 2008, np).

Ed Kashi’s photographs bear witness to the ongoing struggles of local communities, illustrating the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty. They capture local leaders, armed militants, oil workers, and nameless villagers, all of whose fates are inextricably linked… His exclusive coverage bears witness to the frustrated expectations, widespread indignation and unprecedented restiveness between the local communities and oil companies on the one hand, and the State and Federal Governments on the other. The result has been a general deterioration of both political and social cohesion (Source: Anon 2010b, np link).

Ed Kashi's most recent book, Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta (also a story for National Geographic), investigates the impact of oil production on the local population. At his talk, Ed stated up front that this was one of the most graphic examples of economic injustice he had ever witnessed. Why was the Niger Delta such a hellhole, when it should be as prosperous as Kuwait City? The delta has no running water, no education, and most puzzling of all, no electricity. How is it that the oil-producing heart of the world's sixth-largest oil supplier could have no electricity? Hundreds of dollars worth of oil are pumped out every day, but the lakes are so polluted that no one can fish anymore. Niger Delta oil brings in $2.2 million a day, while residents live on $1 a day (Source: Krist 2008, np link).

Reprinted in the book are a series of e-mails Kashi exchanged with a leader of an armed rebel group as he tried to negotiate access and ensure his own safety. The book ends with several photos Kashi took while traveling with fighters, including a scene of them burying one of their own who was just killed in a military attack. Just as disturbing, somehow, are images of workers inspecting oil drills and cleaning up spills, their uniforms emblazoned with the familiar logos of your neighborhood gas stations (Source: Lang 2008, np).

Inspiration / process / technique / methodology

It was the strident dichotomy between resources and poverty that fed Ed Kashi’s need to return again and again to the Niger Delta region to capture images of the people living on or near oil-rich property that has regularly been appropriated for state use over the last fifty years (Source: Ouvry 2010, np link).

[Kashi] spent three years compiling his photos of the Niger Delta, making a total of five trips to the troubled region (Source: Knight 2009, np link).

Kashi says he strove to create powerful images that would grab public attention and tell the story of what is happening in the Niger Delta (Source: Anon 2008, np link).

I take on issues that stir my passions about the state of humanity and our world, and I deeply believe in the power of still images to change people’s minds. I’m driven by this fact; that the work of photojournalists and documentary photographers can have a positive impact on the world (Source: Kashi in Meszarovits nd, np link).

My research was initially through reading materials from research, NGOs and media to get up to speed with my understanding and knowledge of the place and it’s particular issues. But once I went there things really kicked in for me and I became impassioned by what I witnessed. The economic injustice, environmental degradation and evidence of oil’s terrible legacy on the people of the region is what got me hooked. And through Prof Watts’ contacts I was able to enter a very tricky and dangerous environment to work in as a visual journalist with a greater degree of protection, guidance and thereby access. The Niger Delta is truly one of the hardest places in the world I’ve ever worked and the complexities and tensions make it a daunting task for the outsider to get in deep and truly gain an understanding of what’s going on there. I was able to bridge that potential chasm through my persistence, dedication, hard work and the invaluable assistance and guidance of my Nigerian colleagues…still images continue to be powerful forms of communication and enlightenment. Mixing still imagery with moving imagery, audio, graphics, ambient sound, music and most importantly the voice of our subjects is exhilarating and has only enhanced our abilities as visual storytellers to tell our stories in new, dynamic ways that can reach broader audiences and break the space logjam that print media has always forced our work into (Source: Kashi in Laurent 2010, np link).

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 (Source: Kashi in Ryan 2010, np link).

Ed admitted that when he began shooting the story, he blamed the oil companies, but came to find that the government was an even greater culprit. And as the US takes 50% of their oil, we're not blameless either (Source: Krist 2008, np link).

Two recent [National Geographic] Live! events ... featured photographers Ed Kashi and Mattias Klum, both of whom persuasively use their images to incite their audiences to take action … It’s not enough to publish the work, even for a National Geographic audience of 30 or 40 million people, and walk away. [Kashi] promotes the idea of using photographic coverage to raise awareness, and empower other advocates for your cause. He has partnered with academics … to create toolkits for teachers and for activists, and to create websites with links spelling out what anyone can do to get involved… [to] give his subjects a voice, so that viewers can hear their intonations and the way they express themselves (Source: Krist 2008, np link).


Full of stunning pictures, with concise but powerful text, this book is both breath taking and heart breaking (Source: Boeyr 2009, np link).

The images are really powerful …It’s just really easy to get lost in our own bubble sometimes and forget how much suffering and exploitation goes on to feed our fast lives (Source: citisven 2008, np link).

What a crying shame. ... thanks for bringing this to us … for I was totally unaware … what is it that we can do individually to help in some way? Bombard our elected officials with emails. …. calls and letters? Stop purchasing gas from said oil companies? Pray … send love ... light ... wishes of enlightenment to all … in hopes of raising the consciousness level to a higher vibration and rid us of this evil plight? (Source: Freedom 2010, np link).

Once again many thanks for the enlightenment, I imagine like many others I had no idea of this terrible disaster for the citizens of the Niger Delta. It seems even though I gather my news online through world news organizations, we are never told the full story … Perhaps it’s the time to pose the question: do we really need crude oil and the products thereof to sustain life as we know it? (Source: Parslow 2010, np link). 

Ujue nimeiangalia hii kitu kama mara tatu hivi… lakini nashindwa kujizuia kuuliza: Hivi, mbona hii ishu haiko CNN au vyombo vingine vya habari vya kimataifa? 40 years?? Years??? [Translation via Convey This: Note I have watched this thing like three times … but can not avoid asking: What, why is not this ishu CNN or other international media? 40 years?? Years???] (Source: SN 2010, np link).

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 (Source: Ryan 2010, np link).

I just returned from working in Port Harcourt for several months. This is a very graphic book from people who were able to penetrate the heart of the Niger Delta with pictures that very few people would otherwise be able to see (Source: expat 2008, np link).

We were shocked, awed, enlightened and impressed.  As his images and multimedia presentations were projected up on the screen, we were continually impressed; his images are amazing…Ed Kashi’s work is very real, the people in his photographs are almost tangible, their emotion and essence seem to leap off the screen or paper. This sincerity and candidness made the presentation extra-emotional as you felt like you were witnessing the injustices in Nigeria first hand… you could see the shock and awe on the faces of the audience, sometimes accompanied by gasps and whispers…Ed Kashi’s work is as real as it gets, on the ground, candid images of real people with real lives and his photographs are outstandingly good at portraying real life, when looking at an Ed Kashi image you know you are looking into the eyes of a real person in a real place in the very same world as yourself…he wants his work to be the closest thing to seeing it firsthand, he wants the viewer to feel the same emotions as he did when he witnessed the actual event and met the real people (Source: kkskier7 2008, np link).

But apart from the sight of militants waving their guns, the pictures seem to create a kind of passiveness, a despair and inevitability about the situation. The photographs leave you with no sense of resistance. For this you will need to read the supporting text, stories and short essays by women, environmentalists, youth workers and writers who provide historical and contemporary context and depth to the documentary which was produced at the height of the militant movement in 2008…One aspect that Kashi has not dealt with sufficiently is the huge presence of Nigerian security forces in the region, which can only be described as an ‘occupying force’. This pre-dates the militancy and goes as far back as the beginning of the 1990s. I understand this omission, as taking photographs of the military in action would have put his life in danger and most definitely it would have reduced his chances of returning to the country to continue his work. However, at least some narrative on militarisation could have been included to provide a more holistic account of what is taking place (Source: Ekine 2010, np link).

‘Photography has the power of changing everything. I hope your report can put some pressure in the oil companies and allies of the Nigerian gov’: Marisolmx / …’the photography is the starting point, not the end, as a means to engage, educate and share meaningful discussions to encourage better transparency and living conditions for the Deltans’: fotoboogie (Source: comments on Kashi 2004, np link).

Never mind peak oil, let’s drill, squeeze and milk that peak so hard, we’ll shoot that little pimple of a problem all the way to the year 2015 where it’ll erupt all over our children. Oh, wait, 2015 is not even a generation away – never mind, just fill up my hummer… it seems neither fair nor particularly progressive-minded to obliterate entire ecosystems, cultures, and social fabrics in places like the Niger Delta while we’re driving our pick-ups and vanagons to pristine beaches for a nice day of surfing… The real, paradigm-changing question, however, is this: “Should we keep drilling furiously until there’s no more, or slow the pace while there’s still some left?” …it is our responsibility to counter by broadening the debate and raising the level of consciousness on this issue (Source: citisven 2008, np link).

After reading an article on the unrest in the Niger delta, some friends and I were discussing the problems associated with the enormous gas flares. Given that there are generators on the market right now that can operate directly on wellhead…they are relatively affordable, and would pay for themselves in electricity, I wonder that there has not been incentive for the oil companies to install them (Source: Herzbach 2008, np link).

It is critical to make the connection between the consumers and the producers of energy and to educate people about how both are jointly responsible for the future of our energy resources… The planet and its citizenry have never been in greater need of the worlds energy consumers to understand the injustices and dismal environmental and human impacts of our current global energy economy (Source: Kashi nd, np link).


In some small way, we hope that The Curse of the Black Gold may contribute to a better and deeper understanding of what it will take to defuse and rebuild the violent economies of the Niger Delta (Source: Watts 2008, p.20 link).

As a result of his work, Kashi says that his photos are now being used by universities and NGOs to raise awareness to try and effect change. To him, this has been one of the most gratifying and exciting by-products of his work (Source: Knight 2009, np link).

George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film [New York] presents National Geographic photojournalist Ed Kashi’s images of oil exploitation in Africa’s Niger Delta, in the powerful exhibition Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. The display of 37 photographs, on view now through Sept. 1, takes a graphic look at the profound cost of oil exploitation in West Africa (Source: Anon 2008, np link).

[Curse of the Black Gold] is sold out and being reprinted as we speak. We are making a second edition, soft cover, so it will be slightly cheaper and easier for students to carry around (Source: Laurent 2010, np link).

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 (Source: Anon 2010, np link).

We MUST change the way we consume. Every day I see how our societies, particularly in America, waste, waste and unthinkingly waste resource. Having spent time in developing countries, I’ve learned to see this waste and understand why people here do not and just take it for granted. We must move ahead in developing alternative sources of energy, we must pay attention to the cars we drive, or if we should drive instead of walking or taking public transportation (Source: Kashi in Laurent 2010, np link).

How YOU Can Help…People often ask how they can help, and here are two links that can help answer this important question. You can become well versed in the current issues by listening to a Webcast about H.R. 6066 … [and] you can take a look at Oxfam’s website (Source: Kashi 2008, np link).

Sources and further reading

Anon (nd) Overview: Curse of the black gold. ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Anon (2008) Documenting the paradox of oil, poverty in Nigeria. 6 July ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Anon (2010a) Curse of the black gold: 50 years of oil in the Niger Delta. ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Anon (2010b) Curse of the black gold. The Telegraph (UK) 8 March ( last accessed 8 march 2011)

Boeyr, M. (2009) Amazing book (Curse of the Black Gold customer review). 31 March ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

citisven (2008) (consume) LESS, We Can! Daily Kos 25 June (,-We-Can! 8 March 2011)

Clark, V. (2008) This is outstanding! (Curse of the Black Gold customer review). 31 March ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Ekine, S. (2010) Capturing poverty and exploitation: Niger Delta’s oil. Pambazuka News 29 September ( last accessed 2 November 2011)

expat (2008) Great book! (Curse of the Black Gold customer review). 31 March ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Freedom (2010) Re: CURSE OF THE BLACK GOLD : what's really happening in the Niger Delta. 22 July ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Games, D. (2010) AfricaL oil is a far cry from being continent’s curse. 11 October ( last accessed 8 March 20110

Halstead, D. (2008) Curse of the black gold: photographs by Ed Kashi. Digital Journalist August ( last accessed 31 October 2010)

Herzbach, J. (2008) Great idea from a reader. 25 June ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

irishboy369 (2010) Curse of the Black Gold - Trailer, ©Talking Eyes Media (comment). ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Kashi, E. (nd) Curse of the black gold: 50 years of oil in the NIger Delta. ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Kashi, E. (2004) Curse of the black gold. 4 March ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Kashi, E. & Watts, M. (2010) Curse of the black gold: the cost of oil exploitation (photo essay). Mother Jones ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

kkskier7 (2008) Ed Kashi lecture (gallery review). 6 December ( last accessed 3 November 2010)

Knight, M. (2009) Photos capture plundering of Earth’s resources. 14 October ( last accessed 2 November 2010)

Krist, E. (2008) When is objectivity not enough? ( last accessed 3 November 2010)

Lang, D. (2008) Photography books of 2008. Photo district news 3 November

Laurent, O. (2010) VII Photo's Ed Kashi: "We must change the way we consume". British journal of photography 1 July ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

lazyboyz (2010) Curse of the Black Gold - Trailer, ©Talking Eyes Media (comment). ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Meszarovits, M. (nd) Photojournalists and humanitarian photographers. ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Meyer, J. (2010) Ed Kashi - AP Documentary - Delta Force. Amateur photographer 20 October ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Ouvry, A. (2010) Curse of the black gold - Ed Kashi. ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Parslow, J. (2010) Re: CURSE OF THE BLACK GOLD: what's really happening in the Niger Delta. 22 July ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Pulido, L. & Barraclough, L. (2008) A People’s Guide to Los Angeles - an experiment in popular geography. Progress in human geography 32(5), p.708-714

Rosen, S. (2008) Curse of the black gold: 50 years of oil in the Niger Delta. ( last accessed 2 November 2010)

Ryan, B. (2010) Ed Kashi: The curse of the black gold.  24 July ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

SN (2010) Responses to ‘The curse of the black gold’. 12 July ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Tomkins, W. (2008) good text and great photos (Curse of the Black Gold customer review). 31 March ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Watts, M. (2004) ‘Resource curse? Governmentality, oil and power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Geopolitics 9(1), 50-80

Watts, M. (2008) Sweet and sour. University of California, Berkeley: Niger Delta economies of violence working paper series, no 18. ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Watts, M., Okonta, I., Kemedi, V. (2004) Economics of Violence: Petroleum, Politics and Community Conflict in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Niger Delta Economies of Violence Working Papers, No. 1

Compiled by Alice Goodbrook, Jack Middleton, Luke Pickard, Jessica Plumb, Emma Rowe and Megan Wheatley, edited by Ian Cook (last updated March 2011). Page created as part of the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module at Exeter University. Video embedded with permission of Talking Eyes Media.