Published: February 2007
Ed Kashi
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

Photographer Ed Kashi and assistant Elias Courson were photographed hours after their release from custody in Nigeria. Government soldiers had detained the two for photographing an oil facility without permission. Kashi said the ordeal strengthened his resolve. Nigeria, he says, "is a place of shadows. No matter how much light you shed on these shadows, there are always others."

What was your best experience during this assignment?

To tell this story, it was essential that writer Tom O'Neill and I have access to the militants fighting the government for control over the oil in the Niger Delta. Without it, the article would have a huge hole. For three weeks, we were made promises that always fell through. Then, on the day before our flight home, we got a phone call telling us the militants were about to open the door to us.

The occasion was grim: a funeral for the comrades who'd been killed in the government ambush three weeks earlier. But the breakthrough was astounding, a journalistic coup. Besides the funeral, we got out into the swamps to see the militants' villages. And I got the pictures I'd been hoping for when a huge group of them showed up in their boats, totally armed and ready for action. It was a surreal scene, and it was all accomplished in the nick of time. On our boat ride back to our hotel that night, Tom and I could barely believe how our luck had turned. Sometimes perseverance and patience can pay off big.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

Nigeria is the toughest country I've ever worked in. Getting detained by Nigerian military forces while trying to photograph oil flow stations in the Niger Delta was the worst of many bad situations. My assistant, Elias Courson, and I were apprehended in our boat near the town of Nembe. After enduring a bullying bout of questioning, we were held for three days in a small room with a single mattress, without a clue as to what was going to happen to us.

On the third day, we were handcuffed and taken to the city of Yenagoa, where we were put under the control of Nigeria's feared State Security Service, the SSS. They took everything from us—including my cell phone—and put us into a stifling mosquito-ridden room. Soon—feeling that I'd been stripped of all my rights—my anxiety and anger gave way to downright fear, especially after one of the guards said he would be praying for us.

Thankfully, I'd used my cell phone on the day of our arrest to call my office. Unknown to me, by the time we were in Yenagoa, news of our detainment had hit the BBC and Reuters. And a Nigerian human rights group had started working behind the scenes for our release. Finally, on Monday, June 19th, we were brought before the director of the SSS, who delivered up a stern lecture on how to work properly in his country and let us go.

Through it all, the worst part of this experience was the unknown: not knowing what was going to happen next and fearing the worst.

What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?

One night, Tom and I were invited to the annual Yam Festival in Ogbaland, a small kingdom of about 20 or so communities in the Niger Delta. This is a poor region, and even the king's palace was rather modest—but not his reception hall, which had been built and decorated by Total, the French oil company working in the region.

The festival turned out to be an all-night event, with a number of enticements. First, some of the men offered us young women. Puzzled by our polite refusals, they then tried to ply us with alcohol and marijuana. Once again, we smiled and declined, except, of course, for a beer or two. It was quite a debauched event, that Yam Festival, with some revelers sporting guns and shooting them into the air. It didn't end until late the next morning. There were moments when I felt I was in the middle of a New Orleans Mardi Gras—on steroids.