When I first heard of the oil boom taking place in North Dakota, my immediate thought was that here was an opportunity for me to travel back in time, to rub shoulders with the spirits of the Gold Rush era. In the oil fields collectively known as the Bakken, I saw my chance to experience - and document - first hand the clamor, the dust, the chaos, hard work and hopeful spirit that make up an American boom town.
In taking on this project, I decided against hewing to the environmentally focused approach that is common to oil drilling and fracking documentary themes. Instead, I opted to witness the movement of men, steel, trucks, dirt, water and oil so as to allow the story of the people and the place to unfold itself to me.
In so doing, what I found was a narrative far more nuanced than the dominant media portrayals of wanton environmental impact and Wild West gone amok. Instead, the air in the central town of Williston is abuzz with optimistic tales of birth and rebirth. Young men (and a few women) have departed from their forlorn hometowns to find meaningful work and create a financial foundation for their futures. Middle-aged men who’ve lost their jobs, homes and savings in the Great Recession take leave of their families to regain their place in the middle class. The American dream lives strong here.
In assembling this photographic document, my goal has been to tell the story in as holistically a fashion as possible. I seek to meld the rawness of photojournalism, the pathos of environmental portraiture, and the solitude of landscapes with the focused attention of studio portraiture to create a multifaceted, but unified body of work that communicates who these workers are and the spaces, both physical and emotional, that they inhabit.
Just like one climbs a tall mountain for the experience, not just the photos, my journeys to the unwelcoming oil fields of the northern plains have served as my own personal Everest to scale. With no client, no invitation, no place to stay, nor even a point of contact to turn to upon arrival, the very act of gaining access became integrated with my creative process. Gaining acceptance into the brusque, camera-wary oil fields required patience, determination and no small amount of performance art.
Ultimately, these images reflect my profound engagement with the heart of America, smudged and dirty though it may be.