Robin Hinsch’s new book explores the violence of fossil fuel extraction

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Ese Awolowo, Ughelli, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2019. © Robin Hinsch.

Created across Nigeria, India and at open cast mines across Europe, Wahala is a poignant reminder that the climate crisis is everybody’s problem

Despite the over 500 languages spoken throughout Nigeria, the Yoruba word ‘wahala’ is widely understood. Generally meaning ‘problem’, the term rarely stands alone. However, when it does, its meaning becomes stronger – the speaker has a problem so difficult or disconcerting, that they have been left surprised, shaken, or even speechless. 

In the context of Robin Hinsch’s latest book, which employs the phrase as its title, it refers to the biggest and most pressing problem of all: the climate crisis. Created across the Niger Delta; the coal belt of Jharkhand, India; and at open cast mines across Europe, Wahala explores how the extraction of fossil fuels impacts its immediate surroundings and the communities who live there.

Schwarze Pumpe, Brandenburg, Spremberg, Germany, 2016. © Robin Hinsch.

“The whole fossil fuels thing – it’s like some kind of drug addiction,” says Hinsch, speaking from his home in Hamburg, Germany. “Even if you’re heavily, heavily hit by it, you still want to participate in it.” To many, continuing to participate in the production of fossil fuels means driving a walkable distance, or perhaps leaving the heating on a little longer than needed. However, to the people of Niger Delta or Jharkhand, it has a rather different definition.

“Of course, these people are totally against fossil fuels. But on the other hand, especially at the Niger Delta, they say they at least want to benefit from it,” Hinsch says. “In India, many of the people say ‘if they would give us well paid jobs, it would be okay’.” Living at the heart of fossil fuel production, but cut off from their practical and economic benefits, residents of these places are often pushed to hack the system – supplementing low incomes and unreliable livelihoods by stealing coal and oil to burn or refine themselves.

Protestor’s Treehouses, Hambach Forest, North Rhine- Westphalia, Germany, 2020. © Robin Hinsch.
Reuben Ayuba and Friend, Luekue, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2019. © Robin Hinsch.

Working with local activists and human rights defenders, Hinsch gathered this information from the people he photographed. Despite the international companies operating around their homes, they told him that attention to their situation had been minimal and, as such, they were keen to share their thoughts. It is perhaps this openness from his subjects that makes Hinsch’s portraits so emotive.

This emotiveness is heightened by Hinsch’s atmospheric style. Toppling homes, blackened landscapes and rusting metal, photographed often on different continents, are linked by what the photographer describes as a colour space. “For this particular work, it was important for me that it’s difficult to make a difference between the here and there,” he explains. “This is already the unpleasant reality for some, but it will be for all of us, in the end.”

Through this unpleasant reality, Hinsch highlights the complex and global mechanisms employed in the extraction of fossil fuels. Before many of us can drive that walkable distance, or leave the heating on that little bit longer, these often violent narratives must play out in the Niger Delta, Jharkhand and many other such places. Throughout his new book, the photographer’s meaning is clear: the climate crisis remains everybody’s wahala.

Coal Field Fire II, Jharia, Dhanbad, Jharkhand, India, 2019. © Robin Hinsch.

Wahala, published by Gost, is available to pre-order now.