Image © Samuel James / Cosmos.
Samuel James has been selected as one of BJP's 20 photographers to watch in 2013
Author: Lauren Heinz
14 Jan 2013 Tags: Ones to watch
Nigeria has fascinated Samuel James ever since he read an article in The New Yorker about how the country was helplessly intertwined with the US oil economy. It inspired him to travel to Lagos as a student to explore the sprawling metropolis and experience the complexities of Nigerian life.
James, who is now a professor in the Narrative and Documentary Practice programme at Tufts University, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where, he says, “from a young age, I was confronted with the sharp disparities that define the city’s social landscape, particularly tensions regarding race and class that extend through much of America’s post-industrial Rust Belt”. He turned to photography as a means to explore and understand the inequality he was experiencing in his own city.
James began his work in Nigeria by documenting Lagos’s Area Boys – unemployed youths forced on to the streets, who refer to themselves as “Born Troways” – Nigerian Pidgin for “born and thrown away”. He has spent the past few years living among them on and off as “they have provided a unique lens into the ruthless contradictions wrought in the post-colonial petro-state that is Nigeria”. James has since expanded his long-term project to look at the Niger Delta area and “the interactions between the multi-billion dollar oil industry based there and the Delta’s riverine communities, where most of the population survives on less than a dollar a day”.
His work depicts the Delta’s inhabitants living precariously on a land saturated with oil. People of all ages work day and night, trading, burning and refining the toxic crude oil. The area has also been marred by violence instigated by local militias trying to take control of the oil fields. Despite an amnesty in 2009 that saw the militias trade arms for cash, little has been done to alleviate the decades-long suffering.
Image © Samuel James / Cosmos.
The area is not new to journalistic and photographic scrutiny but James’s commitment to a place that can be so readily overlooked by the news agenda is what proves its worth. The story has been published by Harper’s Magazine but James also has other ambitions for the project. “I am hoping to inspire audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere to become more active participants in the conversation regarding global dependence on oil and our collective relationship to the environment and each other. I intend to address the complexities of this story through a variety of platforms, including a documentary film and a book.”
James’s work will eventually lead him to other regions of Nigeria, where he hopes to look at issues surrounding religion, the emerging middle class and the lasting legacy of colonialism. “I tend to focus on questions regarding how historically ingrained global political and economic forces affect the lives of the socially vulnerable. I am interested in crossroads: the space where disparate paths and worlds converge.”
The search will also take him back to where his own story began, because James is “embarking on a long-awaited journey back home to Ohio” in search of the issues that first inspired him to take up photography.
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