Samuel James

BY Elisabeth Biondi, July 1, 2016

Nigeria has taken possession of Sam James’s soul, gradually and steadily. He made his first trip to the country in 2007, when he was a student at Tufts University and received a grant from the university’s Institute for Global Leadership. He graduated in 2010 with a degree in political science and credits his time in Nigeria with giving him the impetus to try to untangle often contradictory sociopolitical situations. His acclaimed photo reportage on the oil industry, made when he was on assignment for Harper’s magazine, won many prizes, including a prestigious ICP Infinity Award in 2014. This work took him to the Niger Delta, where he was introduced to the vast inner world of myth and ritual that guides the lives of many of the Delta people, a world that exists beyond the region’s corruption and pollution and social upheaval. A deeper and less factual exploration became his focus on subsequent trips.

The region’s rich spiritual life is evident in James’s photographs of ceremonial gatherings and rituals, which vary from village to village. Respect is paid to the forces of nature that protect the Niger Delta. During the festival period in many parts of the Delta, masquerades with improvised costumes, carved masks, and drumbeats summon old gods. For James, these ceremonies are a beautiful and important articulation of the experience of life in the Delta, part of an evolving culture and history that express an acceptance of the unknown.

It does not come as a surprise to me that James is also inspired by poetry, especially the work of the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo. Much like poems, James’s pictures are lyrical and intense. He shoots with film, which is one of the reasons the color in his images is so intense. His photographs are strangely beautiful, even when what they show is menacing and dark. He admires the work of Roy DeCarava, a photographer whose jazz pictures express, as James puts it, the aim to make them heard as well as seen. In much the same way, James wants his photographs to be understood intuitively. He remains a storyteller, but his narratives are increasingly non-linear and contemporary, and his pictures are as much mythical as they are documentary.