Oil has been much in the news lately, and two recent books bring the impact of its exploitations vividly to light. Crude Reflections/Cruda Realidad, with photographs by Lou Dematteis and Kayana Szymczak, is a relatively understated book showing the effects of oil poisoning on the Ecuadorian rain forest and its indigenous people. Many of those portrayed are sick, have birth defects, or have since died as a result of living on land contaminated and abandoned by Texaco (now Chevron).
The narrative is simple and direct. Dematteis's color and Szymczak's black-and-white portraits are interspersed with short interviews and rain forest landscapes, while a tragic naivety pervades the book. One elderly woman, Rosana Sisalima—now dead of uterine cancer—describes a life reliant on the polluted north Amazon waters this way: "We pushed the crude aside and dipped in our buckets, and we ate fish from that river. We never realized the river was contaminated."
Crude Reflections' sequencing efficiently propels the reader towards a surprisingly optimistic conclusion in which peaceful resistance and legal challenges offer hope for saving the relatively-undamaged southern Amazon basin. In contrast, Curse of the Black Gold, photographed over four years by Ed Kashi, is an epic and comprehensive treatise on poverty, corruption, and militancy. Its narrative is delivered through vibrant color spreads interspersed with essays written by Michael Watts and a range of Nigerian intellectuals and critics.
Kashi is a committed photographer who has spent years documenting the Kurds and other dispossessed communities throughout the world, and this book is a full-on dive into the mosh-pit of Nigeria's political and social chaos. Reminiscent in scope to Susan Meiselas' Kurdistan, it stands in contrast to Crude Reflections' no less important, but far more modest approach. Although the two books are linked by the subject of oil contamination, where they diverge is in the solutions. The tumultuous effect of centuries of government corruption in the service of exports (first people, then palm oil, now crude) is Black Gold's assignment. Crude Reflections presents Ecuador's relatively settled social landscape—indisputably devastated, but nonetheless holding the prospect of a sustainable future, one that seems very far from Nigeria's grasp.
In and of itself, Crude Reflections is completely satisfying. It actually raises the specter of less being more because, paradoxically, Curse of the Black Gold's cinematic complexity also begs the question: What else can you show me? Fortunately, Kashi has a history of integrating video and sound into projects like Aging in America (powerHouse Books, 2003, made in collaboration with his wife, filmmaker Julie Winokur). In this case, audio segments recorded with many of Black Gold's subjects, together with field notes by Kashi and National Geographic writer Tom O'Neill, are available on the web at edkashi.com and at the National Geographic website. These presentations add a strong critical dimension to the project. "Nigeria," Kashi is quoted as saying, "is a place of shadows. No matter how much light you shed on these shadows, there are always others." For this viewer, Kashi's multi-media approach makes that search infinitely more riveting.—Rupert Jenkins
Rupert Jenkins, is an independent curator living in Denver, CO, where he also works as editor for the University of Denver's Victoria H. Myhren Gallery. He is the former director of the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery and was Associate Director of San Francisco Camerawork for six years.