Review: Tropical Gift by Christian Lutz


Book Reviews, Photobooks


The story of oil (and gas) in Nigeria is long, ugly and relatively well ignored in the West. Just to give you an idea of what’s going on there, look at this article describing the fall-out from the recent Wikileaks release for oil company Shell. And there is more, much more in fact. This is the story told in
Tropical Gift: The Business of Oil and Gas in Nigeria by Christian Lutz, a bold and masterful achievement. (more)

How do you tell such a story using pictures? Lutz’s solution was simple and straightforward: Apart from a single page at the end, with (sobering and often outright cynical) quotes collected in Nigeria, the book only features smartly edited and sequenced photographs (even the front cover - shown above - only shows a single image, no text), full bleed, occasionally paired. The photographs are made to tell the story, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that we are telling ourselves the story, being prodded in a certain direction by the images (isn’t that how photography works?).

There are no punches being pulled in Tropical Gift. It is an ugly story, and it is being told. Any time you might wonder “Well, is this really all that bad?” you might Google some more information on the story of oil in Nigeria, to learn that, yes, it is that bad, in fact usually it’s even worse.

In a day and age, where many photographers are reluctant to take sides, where lots of efforts are made to present both sides of the story, Lutz provides a counter-point, showing what can be gained from combining passion for a cause with photographic skills: The photography employs the colour schemes and looks we are so familiar with from, for example, car commercials. This makes for a jarring effect, because what seems to make a lot of visual sense in some photographs (imagery we might be somewhat familiar with from commercials), in others almost seems a bit obscene.

In fact, if we weren’t so familiar with images - the way they tend to be shot and look in different contexts - Tropical Gift would not work as well. So I suppose this is how you can tell a story in the early 2010s: You let them trigger many of our own standard responses. Excellent.

Tropical Gift: The Business of Oil and Gas in Nigeria, photographs by Christian Lutz, 96 pages, Lars Müller Publishers, 2010