Samuel James has been working in Nigeria for the past five years. For The Water of My Land, he documented the illicit oil trade on the Niger Delta. James will continue the project with the support of a Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography, reports Rachel Segal Hamilton
BJP: What motivated you to document life in the Niger Delta and Nigeria’s clandestine oil trade?
Samuel James: Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, accounting for approximately half of sub-Saharan output, and the fifth largest supplier to the United States. As Africa’s second largest economy, oil accounts for almost 80 percent of the government’s revenue, yet very little trickles down to the people. In the Niger Delta, at the source of production, the vast majority of the population exists on less than a $1 a day in an increasingly ravaged environment – shut out from the billion dollar industry that pumps oil directly from their land.
This story is about the consequences of a system rooted in the unrelenting global consumption of oil. It is important for people to understand the damage this system inflicts on people’s lives and the environment.
BJP: The project was originally commissioned by Harper’s Magazine. How did that come about?
I proposed the idea to Stacey Clarkson, the Art Director of Harper’s Magazine, before going and we worked closely together on the production of “The Water of My Land.” The support provided by Harper’s enabled the creation of this initial body of work.
My process is very straightforward: it’s about spending time with people who live there and listening to their stories. I spent two months photographing in the delta, guided by various individuals I became close with along the way. They thought it was important that people know what is happening to their land and their way of life.
The biggest challenge was, and remains, trying to distill an issue of such complexity into a narrative that will engage and inform people. Much remains to be told and this is what continues to draw me back. This is why I applied for the Getty Grant.
BJP: You teach a course in non-fiction narrative storytelling and photography at Tufts University. What approach to storytelling will you take with this project?
Samuel James: Stories allow us to imagine ourselves in the lives of others, which, I think, is the goal when addressing a situation like the Niger Delta. We as storytellers are obligated to use all the tools at our disposal to guide viewers to a place where they can understand and empathise with a situation they might otherwise never experience, or even know about.
There is little distinction between the course I teach with Gary Knight at Tufts and the projects I pursue out in the world; both are very much focused on the craft of the narrative, regardless of the medium. I believe the emphasis should always be on how and why the story is told, rather than the tools used to tell it.
BJP: How do you plan to present your images? Will you be bringing in other forms of media?
Samuel James: A seminal part of being in the Niger Delta for me is listening to the stories people tell and projecting them. This is an oral culture, and a place where people are raised to read the signs and nuances of their environment. One of the goals of this project is to bring the narratives they are already weaving to a wider audience. I plan to continue this by incorporating a variety of textual, audio and visual media, both to contextualise and supplement the still images.
BJP: As you mention, Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the US. Do you have any plans to look at the American side of this equation?
Samuel James: Yes, I think this is important. I have started several projects that explore the impact of oil and gas production in the United States.
The current energy boom in the United States is dramatically changing the geopolitical landscape of the industry, with the United States becoming increasingly less dependent on foreign oil. This is creating an array of issues across oil and gas producing regions in the United States, many of which echo what is happening in the Niger Delta. The extraction of shale gas literally fractures the land and the economy – and this continues to be a subject of my work domestically.
BJP: You’ve been working in Nigeria since 2008. How long do you see yourself continuing?
Samuel James: I imagine a lifelong engagement with Nigeria, and the people and places I know there. I am currently also working on a project about Lagos, which addresses issues similar to those that exist in the Niger Delta. I have some new projects in the works in other countries, but my work in Nigeria will always remain very important to me.
BJP: Ultimately, what do you hope that the impact of your photographs will be?
Samuel James: I want viewers to understand the choices people are faced with living at the source of oil production in the Niger Delta.