The Legacy of Oil is about our bad romance with oil economyTuesday, November 30th, 2010 | Author: Zarina Holmes
BP and Shell weren’t getting any love from photojournalists, as evident at the launch of the 28th issue of the 8 magazine, The Legacy of Oil, at Host Gallery on 12 November.
Leading photojournalists, activists and writers including Ed Kashi, Christopher Anderson and John Vidal contributed to the biannually edition dedicated to investigating the impact of oil economy worldwide in today’s society.
The stories are successfully presented in a visually arresting journal despite the heavy subject.
Art and oil money is an awkward mix
At the same event, the watchdog of the oil industry, Platform, called for the art community to reassess the roles of oil companies as patrons within the art institutions.
“Oil companies are using art as social license to operate. They have been using many cultural institutions since the last 10 years to achieve this,” said Kevin Smith of Platform.
“The creative industry is important for them to gain social legitimacy. It leads to better access to the corridor of power, the lords and the ladies.”
Art is a currency used to encourage “silence” and acceptance of the horrific consequence of oil companies activities in faraway countries like Nigeria, Canada and the US.
The oil companies’ patronage role within the arts in the UK is becoming increasingly awkward since the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this year. It led to a protest by artists at The Tate in June, as the gallery celebrated 20 years of BP’s art sponsorship.
Platform also pointed out that the Royal Bank of Scotland is instrumental in supporting the oil companies at the expense of the UK taxpayers.
8 Magazine editor Lauren Heinz told Sojournposse: “The edition was put together at the height of the oil spill. We decided then to do a theme on oil. We don’t want to show gas flares because that’s been done so many times. We want to show what oil economy has done to our society instead.”
A photojournalist’s job is to change people’s perception
Swiss photographer Christian Lutz, who is currently represented by VU, shot the cover photo for The Legacy of Oil. It depicts oil expats enjoying a lavish New Year celebration at a yacht club in Lagos, Nigeria, with French champagne in their hands.
When I asked him why he cared about the Nigerian oil issues, he said: “I have feelings.”
Lutz had documented lifestyles related to the oil business in Nigeria on both sides – the oil expats and the local community affected by oil economy.
“I had $150 sushi dinner with the expats on one evening, and then ate dogs with the poor villagers the next day.
“The locals cannot fish anymore because the lakes are now poisonous. They have resorted to eating dogs. Life has a cheaper value there.”
According to Lutz, a photographer’s power can be limited in trying to change the situation. In order to strengthen the message, the images need to be dramatic.
“A sense of drama can create a powerful story. Photography is a pragmatic tool to educate.”
Lutz said that he received threats on this assignment. I related to him about my own experience being intimidated while teaching photojournalism at a country beset by political conflicts.
“Your job is to change their perceptions. You should tell them why they are wrong,” he said.
“Don’t forget Ken Saro-Wiwa”
Benjamin Amunwa from Platform is an active campaigner for the Ogoni tribe in Niger Delta. He also campaigns for RememberSaroWiwa.com. [Ed: On 8th December 2010, Amunwa was quoted on The Guardian's WikiLeaks exposé article on Shell's grip in Nigeria]
“The problem faced by the Ogonis in 1990s is still happening today. In fact, it has got worse,” said Amunwa.
“We should not forget about Ken Saro-Wiwa,” he said, referring to the execution of the Nigerian poet and activist, along with eight of his colleagues 15 years ago.
“Shell is complicit by supporting the Nigerian military. Million dollars of profit were made from oil in Nigeria but the population is still poor. They are left with poison drinking water and lands so polluted that the hunters cannot hunt anymore.”
In 2009, Shell was reported to have paid out $15.5 million in settlements relating to the involvement the company allegedly played in the killings.
Later, the guests were shown a photofilm of Louisiana fishing village affected by hurricane Katrina and The Gulf oil spill. Their options are reduced to working with the oil company or continue struggling with the fishing industry.
Looking at the evidence, it is almost certain that the destruction caused by the fossil fuel has almost reached the point of no return. The question now is how ready are we to wean ourselves off fossil fuel and reconsider our dependency on it.
8 Magazine’s The Legacy of Oil is available on sale at the Host Gallery, 1-5 Honduras Street, London EC1Y 0TH or online.
WikiLeaks cables (The Guardian, 8th Dec 2010): Shell’s grip on Nigerian state revealed
Petroleum industry in Nigeria (Wikipedia)
Artic Wildlife Refuge drilling in Alaska (Wikipedia)
Canadian Oil Sands (Wikipedia)
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (Wikipedia)
Ed Kashi’s Niger Delta project