I am enjoying this new series that Al-Jazeera is running – Artscape: The New African Photographers. Its not just it is a sheer pleasure to hear new and different voices in photography – the European and American obsession with a few handful of the same old voices, largely selected by bored editors from agencies such as Magnun, VII or Noor etc, becoming quite tiresome and banal. It was simply lovely to hear Osodi talk about his work, about how he began it, and how he sees and understands the issues that he is trying to represent.
What is most striking, as you will notice, is that there is a sense of history, and a sense of Nigeria’s place as a nation with a history, that comes across in the way Osodi speaks. This is one of the most obvious things missing from the works of so many Western photographers who have covered Nigeria or any other post-colonial nation. They largely lack any sense of the nation, and its people, has belonging to history. In fact, this very point, was made by Daanish Mustafa when speaking about Pakistan in a piece called Urbanization & Political Change In Pakistan, published in the interesting and challenging new online political magazine called Tanqeed – he argued that:
I have never been a fan of the popular Pakistani conversational sport of matching or upping the doomsday prognosis for the country and formulating a more intricate conspiracy theory to explain that prognosis. Pakistanis of the drawing room variety are champion pessimists when it comes to their country and one can’t blame them. There are good reasons to be pessimistic, but to buy into it whole sale is to imply that Pakistan is one freak of a country and its society somehow living outside of history—unchangeable, incorrigible and forever poised on the edge of a precipice. It shouldn’t be news that Pakistanis do live inside of history and their society does undergo, at times, profound changes that might be imperceptible to our short attention span, sound bite obsessed, mediatized consciousness.
My italics. Indeed, other societies too live inside a history, and their people make their own history. But so many photographers trawl the world looking for a freak show and then create one by essentially decontextualizing the nation, the people. They remove a history, leave the citizens as merely actors in a play they had no say in. They coerce complex reality into the confining, mind-numbing requirements of the linear-chronological story structure so championed by traditional photojournalism programs, and sustained by dozens of news publications and their editors across the globe. The dominance of this coercion is today so intense that most photographers do not even realize that they are doing this i.e coercing the world, which opens up to them in all its complexity, into a simplistic, color-by-numbers, go from A-then-to-B story telling approach. Osodi’s work seems to be reaching – at least intellectually, towards something more complicated, and not so easy trapped into the requirements of the printed / ipad flip page.
There are histories, legacies, decisions and choices, and these cannot simply be erased. And to know these we have to engage deeply with the society, with its stories and with its history. This latter act of engagement is what most photographers avoid, coming up with rhetorical excuses like questions without answers or comments such as ‘I merely document’. Listening to Osodi speak about the Niger Delta, and the catastrophic environmental and oil extraction processes there is to hear a man speak about history. He speaks about how everyone is invovled and that is an opening of an engagement more complicated and more complex than what we have usually been shown.
What he does, and this is the first time I have seen it in any of the dozens of photography projects done on the Niger Delta, including recent award winning ones from a couple of American photographers, is place the people of the Niger Delta in front of us. He shows us actors who are not simply oil thieves, or shoeless children, or black-faced victims or gun-toting gangsters. He shows us communities, histories, society and actors that live and have been a part of the problems of the Niger Delta. He shows us the Nigerians themselves, their lives, their memories, their histories, their views, and their collaboration and involvements in the rape of the region. He complicates the story.
And that is how it should be done. Too many are coming back with simplistic stories where a massive gap is left for where the white-savior industrial complex can insert itself with a heavy doze of righteousness and arrogant hectoring arguments. Osodi seems to want to see the difficult entanglements, and to not hide from the fact that it is Nigerians, their history, their own interests that are as large a part of this problem as any foreign oil company, political deals and arrangements. etc. He wants to see it in its completeness.
I think that he has some ways to go, but it was just a pleasure to see a young Nigerian photographer – one working with a fabulous medium-format digital Hasselblad no less! – taking a more engagement, and difficult path into a story. The story of the Kings of Nigeria is the story of the people of Nigeria and of the Niger Delta as well. It is a story that begins with the individuals who were making this history by making the decisions, the choices and the compromises that they made. Whether by choice, by coercion, by violence, from fear or greed. They made choices, they were forced to accept circumstances or they chose to reach for certain ends.
There is hope for photography yet. I am fortunate to now be living in Rwanda, closer to these new, younger, and very engaged voices. And though I have yet to venture into work in Africa – I am currently tied down in Pakistan working on the Justice In Pakistan project – it is a space that I can’t wait to explore.
In the mean time, I eager explore the local photographers – not just their photographs, but the way they are looking at the world around them.
(Aside: I loved Osodi’s story about how when he gave up a good career in finance to take up photography he faced a lot of scepticism from his friends and family and most thought him crazy. It made me smile as it made me remember my own journey. Though in my case, it continues and Osodi’s fame is nowhere in sight 🙂 )