Back from the Bakken – Lessons Learned from Photographing in the Oil Fields of North Dakota

I’m back safe and sound after a couple of long days of driving back to San Diego from my personal project of photographing in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. As I drove through the unending rolling hills of Wyoming and Montana with nary a car in either direction for many miles at a time, I reflected on my week of roaming in and around the boom town of Williston in search of the interesting moments and great subjects. No question it was a tough week – one especially challenging from the perspective of just trying to get access to the people and places that I wished to photograph.

Unfortunately, there’s no central repository for hard working subjects who wished to be photographed. And to the extent that there is, good luck getting to them. Access is strictly controlled and anyone with a camera is viewed with suspicion. Still, the week was a fantastic learning experience in so many ways. For example, I now know the difference between a roustabout and a roughneck. Beyond learning that a roustabout is someone who does the dirty work around an oil rig and a roughneck is the guy actually getting oil on his hands, I did manage to glean some other, more photographically inspiring lessons that I hope are worth sharing:

Embrace the BHAG
James Collins, in his book “From Good to Great,” writes about how successful companies create what he calls Big Hairy Audacious Goals – BHAG’s for short. These are ambitious goals where the odds of failure are pretty high but the rewards even higher. For me, driving to a distant part of the country that I knew nothing about for the purpose of photographing oil workers, truck drivers and other hard working individuals with whom I shared no connection was indeed a BHAG.

The site manager aka “company man” at a drill site near Williston, North Dakota.

Not only that, I had more than a couple people tell me I should pack a gun and that Williston was a lawless Wild West. Though I didn’t bother with carrying a gun, I did indeed wonder what I’d gotten myself into. In the end though, none of that proved to be true. Not only did I learn so much of what has proved to be a fantastic story, I’ve immersed myself into a project that may well change the course of my career.

Be bold in your goals – then act upon them!

Persistence Is the Key
I can assure you that I did not enjoy walking into an oil company office unannounced and asking complete strangers if I could shoot photos of their workers. I certainly did not enjoy being shown the door almost immediately afterwards. Though there were moments were I grew discouraged – I remember arriving in town and just wondering “what the hell did I get myself into?” The possibility of going home empty-handed was not one that I was willing to accept – so I just soldiered on. Ultimately, I knew what I wanted and was determined to get it.

Worker at a frack site outside of Williston, North Dakota

One Thing Leads to Another
More than anything else, this thought kept my hopes up and my wheels moving. Whether through boldness or foolishness, I left for my trip without a single contact in Williston. Along the way, a Facebook friend gave me the number of his ex in-laws. They in turn gave me the number of the local state assemblyman who in turn gave me the number of a local economic development liaison. She then referred me to a contact at an oil company – who turned out to be married to the man who proved to be the guy who discovered the secret to unlocking North Dakota’s oil. Not only that but she was able to get me onto both an oil drilling and fracking site. Bingo!

Sometimes the task in front of you may seem overwhelming with no sign of the way forward. No matter. Just start with one thing and see where it leads. Just one thing is all you need most of the time. Then stay in motion.

An oil well during the process of being fracked. The pipes contain water that is forced down the well at high pressure to open previously created fissures in the rock.

No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy
If you’re a military strategist, you’re familiar with this axiom. Events rarely work out as planned so allow yourself to be flexible and inventive enough to go along with Plan B – even if you have no idea what that might be. I remember waking up on my first morning in Williston and staring in despair at the ceiling of my cramped camper van. I realized that my original plan of showing up at work sites wasn’t going to work. My solution was to set up shop at a nearby truck stop and see who walked by my little spider’s web. Though that wasn’t my preferred option, I ended up getting some of my best images of the trip that day.

Blend In
If you’re going to take on a project like mine where you visit another city as an outsider, but wish to walk away with images as though an insider, you need to fit in so that you can be accepted. For me, this meant trading in my usual Southern California wardrobe of skinny jeans and quirky t-shirts for something more… um… country appropriate. I busted out my cowboy hat (hand made in Texas) and well-worn boots. I found that people tend to open up to a guy wearing a cowboy hat. More important than that, I didn’t come across as some California kook out to make a mess of things.

Oil worker, Williston North Dakota

People Skills Are More Important Than Photography Skills
I’d like to think that I’m a pretty good photographer. What I came to realize though is that I’m even better at connecting with people and getting them to pose for my camera. In so many situations, I had just seconds to convince someone to pose for me or let me walk onto their job site. Without the ability to connect with a stranger in a micro-slice of time, the best photography skills in the world won’t be of one whit of use. Disarming people and making them feel comfortable enough to relax in front of the camera is an absolutely necessary skill for being a successful people photographer.

Bow Your Head Upon Entering the Teepee
This lesson is one that I heard from my business mentor, but I sure lived it in North Dakota. A key component of excellent people skills is being respectful of the people you’re working with. Coming in as some “expert” who knows how things should be done will not get you very far. Be open to what people have to say. Take their recommendations to heart. Take interest in what they have to say. You may well learn much more than you expected.

Besides, if you’re doing all the talking, you’re doing none of the listening – and it’s in the listening to what people have to say where the learning takes place and new ideas are born.

Truck driver, Williston North Dakota

Have a Clear, Compelling Story to Tell
People constantly asked what I was doing. Though in the beginning, I had little clear idea, as I began to talk to people, I quickly developed my concept and an elevator pitch to go along with it. (An elevator pitch is the slang term for being able to pitch a plan in the length of time it takes to ride in an elevator.) If you stutter and stammer your way through an explanation of what you’re doing, no one is going to believe you nor take you seriously. Having your story down cold is supremely important.

Downtown Williston at night.

Make as Many Friends as You Can
You never know who is going to be in a position to help you. I learned more from people I wouldn’t have thought to talk twice to. I remember sort of getting stuck talking to a particularly tough looking guy at a bar I stopped in at. Turns out he was the boss of a work crew and could get me in to shoot at his work site. I later dropped his name to another site manager who then let me photograph his workover crew. (You can also file this one under “One Thing Leads to Another.”)

Mile long trains with 100 oil cars arrive empty but leave full. The railway is BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway company.

Be Honest
Don’t lie or try to pull one over on your subjects. Be clear about what you’re doing. Nothing gets people riled up more than being told one thing and then finding out that the truth was something different. A big part of the reason why people were so reluctant to work with me was because they had been burned so many times in the past. Now it’s just easier to say no and not worry about it.

While there, I bumped into two different film crews doing programs on environmental issues. The oil companies worked with them because they wanted to get their story out too. They don’t mind working with people who are honest and upfront. What they don’t like are people who are sneaky and operating with a hidden agenda. Now if you’re a muckraking photographer whose goal is to infiltrate and reveal the dark secrets, then I guess you’ve got to do your thing. As much as possible, be honest though. It’s a lot easier to burn bridges than to build them.

Roughneck on an oil drilling rig outside of Williston, North Dakota

The Story You Start With May Not Be the Story You Finish With
The more you go into a story with an open mind, the more open you’ll be to perspectives that you never would have thought of on your own. It opens you up to turning around and seeing what’s behind you or on the other side of your anticipated subject.

More than a few people encouraged me to approach this project from a perspective of environmental activism – I’m a former Sierra Club member so that’s no stretch for me. But that to me was far too simplistic a story that others are already telling. Instead, I allowed the story to reveal itself to me. By focusing on the people, listening to what they were telling me and then observing scenes as they unfold, I feel like I’m onto a much more powerful and mostly untold tale.

Tired oil worker resting after a 12 AM to 12 PM shift working on a workover rig near Alexander, North Dakota

No Work Is More Important Than Personal Work
I want to stress the importance to photographers of personal projects like this. I could have left these posts on my personal blog, but I feel that there’s a genuine business interest in creating work that excites both photographer and viewer. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: It’s far too easy to get caught up in the daily grind of doing client work. But it’s the personal work that inspires us and pushes us to create work that stands out from the crowd.

You have the potential to create great work. Make it happen!

Workover crew repairing an oil well near Arnegard, North Dakota.

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About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
This entry was posted in Art. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Back from the Bakken – Lessons Learned from Photographing in the Oil Fields of North Dakota

  1. Very inspiring. Time to get back to a couple of personal photography projects that somehow ended up on the back burner.

  2. kernphoto says:

    John, way to be! I admire your efforts. “One thing will lead to another” remains one of my favorite philosophies of life I gleaned from reading your story. Looking forward to seeing where this will lead!

  3. allenayres says:

    Great photos John, they really tell a story of their hard work.

  4. nickgphoto says:

    Great story.
    Besides being a photographer I also deliver commodities and feed to dairies. This gives me excellent access to the mills and the inner workings of the dairies.
    What you are saying is true. They aren’t quick to accept you because you might be God’s gift to photography. They will accept you because you have a total interest in them and want no harm.
    Great post. You articulated many of the things I’ve learned doing my ongoing “Portraits from the road” project.

  5. kyledavidjones says:

    Hi, John:
    Thank you for the article, I thought it was very insightful. Did you ask any workers to sign a model release? If so or if not, could you provide your reasons?

    Thank you, Kyle

    • johnmireles says:

      I didn’t ask for model releases. It’s hard enough to get them to pose for the camera. Asking for a model release is just too much. It’s too much to work and too much time. I often just have minutes or seconds with these guys. Besides I don’t need a release for using the images in a book or for gallery shows.

      • kyledavidjones says:

        Thanks, John. I had a suspicion that you didn’t. Great work, excellent inspiration.

  6. Valery says:

    Hi there, I’m just back from the Bakken myself, doing my own photography project, one that I started many years ago, to which Bakken will be a key piece. I had a great time out there, made tons of friends, went into all kinds of dark and strange places. There are a few things I’d love to pick your brain about. Do you have an email where you can be reached? I’m heading back out in a week and mulling it all over before I go. Thanks. Valery

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