Photographer Valery Lyman stood on a train platform in Williston, N.D., surrounded by strangers, watching a scene from the pages of a history book unfold before her eyes.
The train rolled to a stop, and a wave of large, muscled men carrying work bags disembarked. As she moved through the crowd, Ms. Lyman heard accents from all over the country. People had traveled from Oklahoma, Tennessee, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, and everywhere in between to look for work in North Dakota, where there weren’t enough bodies to fill the demand for labor in the oil industry. She thought, “Something important is happening here. This is a big American migration.” Ms. Lyman knew she had to start recording what she saw and heard.
That day marked the start of a four-year-long multimedia documentary project on the boom and bust of the North Dakota oil fields. Ms. Lyman made some eight trips to Williston and other areas of the Bakken Formation, a large shale deposit that sits under North Dakota and surrounding states. She documented an American emigration, economic boom, and environmental crisis through the lives and working conditions of those who mine for natural resources. She gained unprecedented access to the mechanics of fracking and drilling, and documented the conclusion of the Standing Rock protest
Ms. Lyman, who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, showed some of this work at Sargent Gallery on Sunday night. The show, “Force of Place: Oil and Water in North Dakota,” was curated to explore the environmental realities of the oil industry through the lens of the environmental movement.
Ms. Lyman was cautious about throwing a political claim or lens on her work, but did speak to the difficulty of selling an environmental agenda to a portion of the population that can’t afford to feed their children. “If I had to get political with it, or if I had to get policy-directive with it, I would say … these people are coming from all over. These are hard workers. And they may care about the environment, they may care about a lot. Quite a few of them actually sympathized with the Standing Rock people and that cause. But they need a job.
“So if Democrats or liberals or whatever want to move the environmentalism forward as policy, I think they really need to think about labor, and they need to sell it as a labor plan. Because these people say, ‘That’s great, you care about the trees you care about the water, but my child doesn’t have enough to eat, so why don’t you care about me?’ So it sounds to them like you don’t care about them. Find a way to make renewable energy into a job plan, not just an environmental plan.”
Surrounded by family, friends, and curious art patrons, Ms. Lyman talked about her motivation and the experiences she had putting this project together.
Ms. Lyman became enamored with the historic cycle of boom and bust towns while on assignment in Nevada in 2008. She began to photograph ghost towns in their various states of decay and preservation; some had become meth labs, others were historically protected. “You can walk into some of these places and see a calendar on the wall from the month that everybody left,” Ms. Lyman said. “I was very interested in the boomtown mentality as a piece of history that seemed to wend its way through time and the landscape.”
This affinity for the ghost boom towns of the past eventually caused Ms. Lyman’s gaze to turn to North Dakota, where the rush for black gold was uprooting families from around the country. “I wanted to see if there were any notes of resonance between the old and new, if there was any American character that remained constant,” she said.
Ms. Lyman is a filmmaker by trade, but felt that photography would best capture the inert, frozen-in-time quality of what she was witnessing. Working solely with a Voigtlander 35mm film camera and her audio recorder, she gained access to the “man camps,” which were essentially military-like shipping containers converted into temporary living spaces for the workers.
“One man said to me, ‘This is where they grab you by the arm and say, What do you know?’” Ms. Lyman recalled. “It’s not just oil field work, it’s drill work, fracking, welding, laying roads, carrying water, plumbing, construction, restaurants, putting up hotels — all these ancillary industries around the central oil work.”
The North Dakota climate is not forgiving. The desolate, harsh weather ranges from subzero winters to brutal, searing summers. The people that clung to its surface,
scratching out a living from the earth, became just as harsh in their fight to survive. Ms. Lyman described the oil towns as places where people work hard and play harder.
“[The land] is so unpredictable it almost has its own will,” Ms. Lyman said. “There is power in the land itself. A lot of these guys are working in these elements, it’s like this Herculean effort involved.
“I fell in love with the place. It was strangers in a strange land; the openness of longing and of being. I was just really attracted to this rawness of humanity, how open they were, and awake. All their senses were enlivened because the work was so dangerous.”
A large part of the project was recording the sounds of the oil fields, the surrounding bars and restaurants, and the men and women who populated the area.
Ms. Lyman remembered meeting a Vietnam veteran in his 60s who worked his whole life as a cabinetmaker, and owned his own construction company. His life fell apart in 2008. He couldn’t afford to pay his bills, and had to take out a second mortgage on his home. He moved to North Dakota to find work to make his monthly mortgage payments until he could sell his house.
Ms. Lyman shared a quote from the man: “Unless the economy comes back and land prices come back, I’m stuck. I’m not going to sell it for nothing, I’ve worked too hard to get there. I’ve considered just dumping everything and driving off in the motor home and saying to hell with it all. But I’m not going to do that. I just can’t. I’ve worked too hard, too long.”
Thousands of people left their families or displaced their families to come work in the oil fields. People were paid higher wages compared with their hometowns, where they couldn’t find work. They were getting paid more than they would elsewhere to complete laborious, dangerous work.
In 2016, when Standing Rock began to unfold, Ms. Lyman was initially skeptical of covering it as part of her project. She felt that the story she was covering was on the ground in the oil fields, not miles away at the site of a protest.
“At first I didn’t want to go photograph it, because there were so many people there,” Ms. Lyman said. “At a certain point, it became too much a part of the story in North Dakota and this American story, now two things I’ve been tracking for five years. It was too much a part of that to leave it out.”
The show’s audience was brimming with questions about Ms. Lyman’s time in North Dakota; what was it like witnessing fracking up close? What was Standing Rock like? What do the camps look like now? What is the future of energy — and clean energy — in this country? Ms. Lyman could have talked for hours on the subject, but decided to let people view her work and draw their own conclusions.
“Part of what our gallery is about is to start a conversation, and I think this was a very powerful aspect of the show,” Megan Sargent, gallery owner, said. “People find the two aspects of life in North Dakota fascinating, whether it’s Standing Rock or the oil towns. Seeing this through fine art and documentary photography speaks for itself.
“It’s about people coming up with their own take, and I think that was very much facilitated by Valery’s talk. In these political times, that’s what we need to do.”
Valery Lyman’s work will be hanging at Sargent Gallery through the end of the summer. For more information about the photographer and to see more shots from “Force of Place,” visit valerylymanphotos.format.com. Sargent Gallery is located at 32 State Road in Aquinnah, and is open Thursday through Saturday or by appointment. Call 508-645-2776 to schedule an appointment.