Yagazie Emezi’s Photographs Spark Conversations About Nigeria’s Environmental Crisis

Yagazie Emezi is a self-taught photojournalist who explores the boundaries of contemporary topics, such as the one that introduced me to her work in 2018, titled Past and Present: An Amalgamation of Igbo Culture. A collaborative lookbook that was created for Vlisco, it sets out to explore the Igbo customs of same-sex marriage in pre-Christian Igbo land and the use of Uli to make drawings on the body (a well-known form of body art practised by Igbo women that has gradually disappeared from today’s society).

She explains on her website that it was essential for her to produce more than a lookbook: the works created are an amalgamation of Igbo culture, present and forgotten.

In a detailed explanation in the lookbook, she explains that before Christianity was introduced in Igbo land, women whose husbands died were allowed to get married to a same-sex partner under the condition that no child was produced during her time with a man. The woman was allowed to choose a wife and go through the customary traditional rites. If the couple wished to have children, they could freely choose a man, and the children would bear the name of the woman-husband. The lookbook also explores women’s confidence in their identity and how colonisation has robbed us of so many of our cultures, seemingly eradicated due to it being ‘primitive and ungodly’.

This particular work of hers made me explore the deeper aspects of my tradition and culture that have seemingly gone extinct due to the effects of colonisation. It opened my eyes to many customs that were ruled as evil because they never suited the white man’s palette.

Photo by Yagazie Emezi, courtesy of Vlisco
Photo by Yagazie Emezi, courtesy of Vlisco
Photo by Yagazie Emezi, courtesy of Vlisco

Yagazie’s works are not relegated to an aspect of society. Instead, her approach to her work and creative genius allows her to explore so many themes and topics, ranging from her detailed documentation of the impact of education for girls in at-risk communities in Liberia to her work that showed how trauma survivors, outside violence and abuse, adapt to their new bodies while commenting on the absence of an exuberant culture around body positivity as a unique cultural phenomenon.

Her refreshing approach to these sensitive topics continued to fascinate me, which led to my discovery of the latest work she did with the New York Times, capturing the devastating effects of oil mining in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. These pictures, taken for the New York Times, show the indigenous people of the Niger Delta, showing off their nets covered in soot from the rivers that have turned black. In one of the pictures, three people are seen on a boat that gently glides over the heavily contaminated water. A woman in the group is seen holding up her fishing net that is darkened from the water, and there are fishes beside her that seem to have no life. The lakes across their creeks are darkened with oil, making the water impossible to use. Their lands have become hardened due to fracking during the extraction process.

Decades of oil tapping in the Niger Delta region, starting in 1956- which has helped place Nigeria on the map as one of the largest producers of crude-oil in the world, has led to extensive damage in the region. The constant oil spillage in the Niger Delta has made it one of the most polluted places on earth. It is estimated that Nigeria recorded about 9,343 cases of oil spillage within the last ten years.

The lackadaisical approach by the government to this significant crisis has led to massive unrest in the region that has ranged from illegal oil tapping to kidnapping to even the criminal sentencing of and killing of activists, such as the Ogoni Nine- a group of activists from the Ogoni region who was executed by hanging by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in 1995. These killings would mark the beginning of decades of unrest, giving rise to the militarization of the entire region by ethnic militia groups, the Nigerian military, which would discourage foreign investments in new power plants in the region.

The shameful approach to this situation has also led to a substantial amount of environmental degradation, gas flaring, dredging of large rivers, and oil spillage, leading to land reclamation due to gas extraction across the Niger Delta, costing about 758 million dollars every year. In a rather sour turn of events, the brunt of these expenses is borne by the local communities through polluted water, infertile farmland and lost biodiversity.

A 1983 report by the Nigerian National Petroleum Commission, long before the unrest in the region started, best explains the entire situation.

”We witnessed the slow poisoning of the waters of this country and the destruction of vegetation, agricultural land and goof water sources by oil spills which occur during petroleum operations, but since the inception of the oil industry in Nigeria, more than fifty years ago, there has been no concerned and effective effect on the parts of the government, let alone the operators to control the environmental problems associated with the industry”.

There have been movements, however, such as the Movement of the survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP)-founded by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, an umbrella association of eleven member groups that together represent over 700,000 indigenous Ogonis in a nonviolent campaign for social, economic and environmental justice in the Niger Delta. This organisation has been at the forefront of protests, movements and lawsuits since its inception in 1990, but the fight is not only theirs to fight.

There is still so much to be done in the Niger Delta. The effects of the oil spill are devastating and long-lasting. Life for the people in Ogoniland is unbearable, seeing that their lands and waters have been heavily polluted by Crude oil. This problem itself does not only affect them but the country as a whole. The crisis has led to a spike in insecurity across the country. It is sinking our economy due to over-reliance on crude and the failure to diversify our economy. If the government continues to ignore the pleas of the people, the destruction of our entire country might be sooner than anticipated.

All in all, Yagazie’s works open us up to discussions about important topics, which would be regarded in high esteem for years to come. Her works seem to come from a genuine place of care, Showing us that these projects are rather personal. I am in awe of her and her talent, and I cannot wait to see her push more boundaries and explore more themes that people would never dare to while performing exploits with her incredible artistic vision.

Photo by Yagazie Emezi, courtesy of The New York Times
Photo by Yagazie Emezi, courtesy of The New York Times
Photo by Yagazie Emezi, courtesy of The New York Times
Photo by Yagazie Emezi, courtesy of The New York Times
Photo by Yagazie Emezi, courtesy of The New York Times
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