There are many ways to interpret a work of art, and the museum’s Label Talk series encourages visitors to reflect upon and voice their own interpretations of specific artworks, such as this photograph of an oil spill by Nigerian artist George Osodi. Several members of the Middlebury community have offered their personal or professional reactions to this photograph, and those reactions are displayed adjacent to the work on the wall in the galleries. In publishing them here in this post as well, we hope these perspectives will inspire you to share your own responses to this work of art in the comments below.
We look forward to reading your responses.
—Matthew Evan Taylor, Assistant Professor of Music
In his series “Oil Rich Niger Delta,” photographer George Osodi documents Western oil corporations’ exploitation of the vast region in Nigeria where the Niger River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Oil slicks, burning gas, and massive pipelines destroy cropland, displace communities, and poison the air, water, and soil on which the native populace relies. Osodi deftly captures the desensitization of local communities to the hazardous conditions: life continues, even amidst seemingly post-apocalyptic orange skies and swaths of smoke.
—Laurel Rand-Lewis ’19.5
Looking at this photograph taken in Niger Delta, Nigeria, I see a land that is so devastated that there no longer remains the hope of salvation. The vegetation is long gone, the wildlife is decimated, and the air and land beg for a release from all the pollution that overwhelms them. Likewise, this photo tells a story of a negligent government and money-hungry companies who have ignored the damage done to the land—a land that was once the largest wetland in Africa—all because of profit-making. So by photographing this land, George Osodi takes up the responsibility of holding the culprits accountable. He says, “I will let the whole world know what you have done to my land”.
—Ife Onuorah ’23
dear swirling rainbow slick,
dear drowned birds, dear sick,
dear protesters shot on rigs,
dear dead pigs, dear end of dawn,
dear women drying tapioca
by twenty-four-hour flare,
dear bunkerers wanting a fair share,
dear oil well with shaking head,
dear ancestor spirits, dear dead—
how to loose the hangman’s noose,
restore rivers their fish, let that black snake
languish, smoke its own pipe?
hear the white man, guns to his head
in the middle of this watershed,
change his well-oiled tune, croon:
they wanted us to look—
—Spring Ulmer, Department of English & American Literatures, Middlebury College
6 replies to Label Talk: George Osodi’s Oil Spill Near Farm Land Ogoni
My first response to this photograph – “Oil Spill Near Farm Land Ogoni” – is one of shock. Shock and pain and desperation are what I see in this photograph. From the title, I can tell that the oil spill could be potentially detrimental to the people who work at this farm. The land the man walks on, in flip flops, contrasts the land behind and the flames and smoke. The land in the background is green while he just walks on dirt. His yellow shirt, stained with I assume something black form the oil spill, stands out in the photograph. I am struck by the mans expression. As he walks away from the fire, his expression is one of sort of hopelessness and sadness. The viewers of the photograph are set up to look up at him, while he looks down at the camera. The viewers do not know whether the man is walking away from his home or to his home, but from his expression we can tell that something like this has more likely than not happened to him before in some way. Osodi captures the living conditions of these communities and the fact that even as this terrible event occurs, the people have to keep moving and keep living. Although this photo captures only this one moment of distress, it engages the viewers, makes them/us think about how this land has been affected, what we are doing to contribute to it, and how we could potentially help or change this situation.
As I view Osodi’s Oil Spill Near Farm Land Ogoni photograph, I begin to think about the many artistic, social, and environmental concepts arising within this image. First, I feel horrified by the environmental crisis of the oil spill occurring within the photograph. At first glance, I had thought this image was black and white which demonstrates the extent of this oil spill. The fact that the colors of the land have blended to become a dark color calls attention to the environmental crisis occurring in the image. Additionally, George Osodi’s photographic lens is fascinating as he captures multiple points of interest within the image: the explosion and the subject. The explosion expresses the amount of chaos and disaster within this landscape while the subject represents opportunity and bravery. It is incredible to see contrasting perspectives within an image that appears to be so horrific. Furthermore, as we dive deeper into this image, I begin to ponder on the subject. The subject is showing both a component of victimhood and empowerment. The photographer does an excellent job of capturing the empowering aspect of this subject and the bravery and dignity in his posture and step. Even in moments of darkness, there are individuals like this subject that remain strong and show optimism and empowerment. However, this image also does amplify the victimhood present within the image. The photographer captures the subject in a moment of pure chaos and demonstrates the ruins of his land. Clearly, the subject has become a victim of this disaster. Osodi does a fascinating job of capturing so many components of nature, emotion, chaos, and empowerment within one image.
Upon viewing the photo, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the apocalyptic nature of the image. The chaos and ruin in the background between the unnatural expanse of the oil spill and billowing clouds of black smoke notify the audience that something is clearly wrong. The forefront depicts a solo subject holding some sort of sword or knife, valiantly trudging on towards the camera lens. The image as a whole demonstrates the juxtaposition between mankind and nature, as their harmonious coexistence is threatened by the climate -related natural disaster. The Niger Delta region has been exploited for years, as the oil rich land has been an attractive mining area for many nations. However, as Nigerians continue to grow poorer, the exploitative nations reap the benefits from the extracted oil mines, leaving the inhabited land in ruin. This image speaks volumes not only to the geographic damage caused by the oil spills, but the political message behind the resilient man in the face of adversity. Osodi utilizes his photojournalistic skills to paint a clear call to action to the readers about the danger of the ever-worsening carbon footprint being left upon our earth, and the armageddon-like destruction that will occur if life continues on this way.
This photograph is incredibly striking, both in the subject matter and in the composition. We see the fire and huge plumes of smoke rising up behind a man who seems completely unhurried as he strides away from the scene. At the basic level, this photograph depicts a site of devastation, where an oil spill destroyed this man’s home, which appears verdant and lively until the fire burns through everything. The composition of the photograph also adds to its effect, because the viewer is positioned so that the man is above us, and he appears strong due to his height and stance. This positioning is interesting because the man is certainly undergoing a crisis, so his strength in the face of this danger gives the sense that he expected it to come, and is only disappointed. We can also see the reflection of the smoke in a pool of water, which magnifies the disaster and brings it to the forefront of the image rather than just the background. In this way, Osodi uses perspective to highlight the destruction of the area by the oil spill, which ruined both the land and, likely, the subject’s livelihood.
The first few words that come to mind when looking at George Osodi’s “Oil Spill Near Farm Land Ogoni” are chaos, pain, and desperation. Behind a man, who stares intensely at the camera with fear in his eyes, is an area of land marked by devastation and destruction. This photograph not only captures the oil spills effect on the landscape but also on human beings. The smoke and fire that the man walks away from creates a sense of urgency and leads viewers to question if others in that same area survived the violent effects of the spill. We also do not know where the man is walking to – or if he has anywhere to go or anyone to meet. Because there is clearly a sense of drama and suspense in this image, it evokes a sense of sympathy from viewers. Due to the various visual details highlighting the area’s state of distress, Osodi’s photograph exposes the region’s poor conditions in a way that encourages individuals to dig deeper and reflect on how they can help.
In this photo, I am immediately struck by the complete desolation contrasted by the subject’s bright yellow shirt and his somewhat confident demeanor as he walks away from the sight of the oil spill. While his body is turned, he will not truly be able to walk away from the devastation within the photo, as well as in countless similar events that led up to and will result from the oil spill, politically, socially, and/or personally. The man moves away from the smoke into what seems to be a clearer, more promising landscape, yet his face does not suggest optimism or hope. He, and in turn the viewer, recognizes that trouble does not begin or end with a single moment captured within a photographer’s lens.