Wahala presents dramatic, surreal scenarios that could have been taken from a movie – yet they are situations that affect every single person in the world. We are all part of an economic race that Robin Hinsch’s pictures reveal quite bluntly. In an interview, the Hamburg photographer speaks about his work in the Niger delta, the obstacles that had to be overcome and the fine line between documentary and associative imagery.

Please summarise what the project is about.
The photographs in Wahala question our relationship to nature and to the environment. The project carries out an analysis of origins. Where do the raw materials that fuel the global economy come from? Where does the oil that drives our cars, air-planes and ships, and that is so essential for our global economy, come from?
In Wahala, the work draws a sketch of a system groaning under its own weight, and which has brought considerable changes to the planet over the last 100 years – a system that only survives as a result of the total exploitation of raw materials and a lack of scruples within society. The story of the use of fossil fuels is a story of exploitation. The situation today is a continuation of colonial structures and processes.
With the beginning of the demand for oil in Nigeria in 1959, the national economy should have experienced a upward swing. However, to this day that never happened. The wealth generated by international concerns abroad never flowed back into the country. The Nigerian economy’s vulnerability for corruption gives rise to badly carried out maintenance work, accidents and theft. As a result, the once diverse ecosystem in the Niger delta is increasingly ruined. The people living there in these conditions are virtually left to their own devices.
Because of this, many Nigerians have no choice but to be active themselves; and what started out as small thefts has turned into an alternative economy in the shadows of the international concerns. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to further deterioration in both society and the ecological situation.

Why and when did you start to become interested in this subject?
Before this I hadn’t done any photographic work focussed specifically on ecological issues; yet I considered dealing with this subject was a logical consequence to my previous work – in fact, I’d been thinking about it for a long time. The idea of working in the Niger Delta developed especially after the choreographer Moritz Frischkorn asked me to work with him on his new piece, The Great Report. He asked me to develop a project that deals with the global economy and the logistics involved in it.

Were there any photographic role models you looked to for inspiration?
There were no particular role models or similar for this project; but I did discovered exciting artists such as Yagazie Emezi, Akinbode Akinbiyi, George Osodi, Teju Cole while doing research.

How would you describe your photographic approach to this project and how does it differ to previous ones?
In general, I’m interested in exploring the relationship between the documentary image and its function as a way of conveying ideas. To what degree can a documentary picture be abstracted and remain an information carrier, and to what degree can an atmospheric, associative photograph be documentary? In this regard, this work probably looks like a continuation of my former work.

Which were the biggest challenges that needed to be overcome in this project?
There were a few obstacles to be dealt with to be able to work in Nigeria. The bureaucratic stuff, like the proper journalist visa and the working permit. And then there was the very intense research. We also mustn’t forget that armed conflicts are not uncommon in the north and in the south. There have been militant groups in the Niger Delta for some decades: they try to sabotage the oil industry. Kidnappings are no unusual. Without Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface, an activist from Port Harcourt, many things would have been impossible.

Do you think that photography in general is always somewhat political, or should be?
Photography of itself is political. I have no doubt about that. As a result, photography should always focus on doubting and questioning the existing circumstances.

Have there already been any reactions to this project?
Unfortunately, though it also wasn’t to be expected, there has been no direct reactions to the work so far; but it would have been presumptuous to think there would be. I hope, and even believe, that maybe it will move this or that person to give thought to how they want to deal with fossil fuels in the future. The project has, in fact, been published in The Guardian and in FuturZwei Magazin, and has been presented at various exhibitions. Furthermore, the work received, among others, the International Photography Grant, and the Sony World Photography Award in the Environment category.

What has this project taught you personally?
That we need to pay much more, energetic attention to our environment.

To what degree did the M10 help to fulfil the goals you had?
It’s precisely when you’re moving around a lot, when you can’t take a lot of gear with you, and when discretion is required, the a Leica is an exceptional companion.

Robin Hinsch studied photography in Karlsruhe, Hanover and Hamburg, completing his studies with a Master’s in Photography at the HAW Hamburg. He has been working freelance for international magazines and papers, such as The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Sunday Times Magazine, Zeit and Sz Magazin, since 2014. Furthermore, work that was produced in countries like Syria, Nigeria, China and Ukraine, has been exhibited internationally and received various awards. Hinsch has been a designated member of the German Photographic Academy since 2016. In 2017 he founded the exhibition space, Studio 45, in Hamburg, where he has been curating and presenting a series of exhibitions that are committed to promoting young, international photography. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.