The Industrialization of the Great Plains – Documenting the Bakken Oil Fields

One of my favorite things about my new position at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle is the fact that in addition to providing daily photos, we also publish numerous high quality, in depth magazines that allow us photographers an opportunity to produce long form documentary photo stories. With the state of the newspaper industry these days, it’s rare that a news organization can support this type of investigative journalism. In many ways it feels like I’m working for a bigger metro paper because usually only the bigger news organizations have the budget to produce this type of content. For a photojournalist and storyteller like myself, it is an incredible opportunity and one I relish.

About a month ago, I traveled east to the border of Eastern Montana and North Dakota on assignment for the Montana Quarterly magazine, to spend a couple days documenting the happenings of the oil boom that is sweeping the edge of the Great Plains. While national debate argues over the best direction for future energy consumption, be that green technology or our country’s dependence on foreign oil, the rush to mine the Bakken’s huge, expansive domestic oil deposits through a controversial method of hydraulic fracturing drilling are in full swing and are severely impacting the way of life, both good and bad, for these small Montana and North Dakota towns. In all aspects, it is becoming the new industrialization of the Great Plains. As a result, these towns struggle to maintain their small town culture while trying to support the wave of workers that are flooding in from all across the country looking for work. Their basic services and infrastructure (trash clean up, housing, road systems, sewage and water treatment, etc.) can barely keep up to support this boom. For the locals who own land or property, they are getting rich but for many other non-oil related businesses, the boom is crippling or eliminating their small businesses due to their inability to compete for employees with the high wages given from the oil companies. Many small businesses are collapsing as a result.

My assignment was to document how these drastic changes are effecting the local culture while giving insight to what the conditions are like for the traveling journeymen and oil rough necks (often living out of their cars or run down “Man Camps”) seeking to cash in on the oil boom out on the Bakken. Work there is abundant if you possess the right labor skills but more often than not, the lure of big oil brings a mixture of violent and sexual offenders mixed with honest folks trying to support their own loved ones elsewhere. For many of them, the Bakken is a chance for them to run away from poverty. Having only a couple days to get the story, I was limited in how deep I could immerse myself into the scene. These images are what I was able to take away from the experience. The story recently published in the Summer issue of the Montana Quarterly magazine and is on newsstands now. Reporting on the developments of the Bakken Oil fields are just beginning and it will be interesting to see how the ongoing debates develop over our country’s thirst for domestic energy and to see what the future holds for the Bakken and the people in it. You can read the entire story via pdf by following this link Money from the Earth. Cheers, -M

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