For years, the Guyanese people, as well as multinational energy companies, have known that there had to be oil buried under its Atlantic shores. “They recently just found it,” explains Natalie Keyssar, a New York-based photographer who recently documented Guyana’s rapidly changing landscape for Bloomberg Markets. While oil companies like Exxon are hastily rushing to the South American country to build offshore drilling apparatus, there are nationwide concerns that this international influx of business will exploit Guyana’s resources, leaving the rest of the country, and most importantly the Guyanese people, worse off.
“The oil hasn’t started pumping yet,” Natalie tells It’s Nice That, discussing her extensive series. “On the street level, that basically means not much has changed yet, but among the political and business types, people are angling for their piece of the pie.” In her evocative series, she captures the local inhabitants going about their daily lives, juxtaposing their coastal existence with unsightly construction sites marring the shoreline.
Journeying to Guyana last August, Natalie was first and foremost struck by the quality of the light. “I’ve traveled around that region a fair amount,” she says, “and I’ve never seen light quite like Georgetown’s in August. It was so hot and bright that the light really felt like it had its own physical presence.” Taken with the beautiful architecture – a mix of “decaying colonial constructions” and modern buildings – Natalie felt instantly excited by the mix of cultures before her. “It’s a place where you can see history unfolding right in front of your eyes,” she says.
In her hotel, she saw Texan oil men, European contractors and engineers coming and going for work. But on the street, things seemed unchanged by this international presence. “The people have really varied opinions on what oil will bring for them,” says Natalie. “Some are celebrating, they figure it will bring jobs and infrastructure, believing the political promises that everyone is going to be handed a share of the revenues. Others are more sceptical.”
Documenting this monumental time of change for Guyana, Natalie’s series acts as a time capsule of sorts, documenting life on the cusp of drastic economic change. “I was thinking a lot about photographing a place that will likely be changing very soon, rendering a lot of things unrecognisable,” she says. Working closely with her editor Donna Cohen, Natalie not only photographed narrative elements for the story, but was also encouraged to “look for images that captured a sense of place during a moment of change”. For this reason, the photographer particularly loved taking her camera down to the waterfront, playing on the symbolism of the sea and the act of washing things away.
For Natalie, one of the highlights of the project was meeting and talking to the subjects of the piece, people she would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. She photographed the Guyanese minister of energy, Mark Bynoe, who at first “didn’t even want to let [Natalie] into his office”. But once they got talking, Natalie learnt a lot about the gravity of the current situation. Mark told her about his hopes for the country, hoping that the oil boom will benefit the people. On the other hand, he discussed the weight of the responsibility if it doesn’t.
She also learnt a lot from her driver, a man called Roy Smith, who “knows the story of every corner in Georgetown and really made the history of the place come to life for [Natalie]”. She finally adds on her monumental trip, “In Guyana, everyone was laughing and joking with me, often making fun of whatever absurd-looking thing I was doing to get the shot. It made the whole experience really light and funny.”
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