Photographers Seek to Shine Light on Marcellus Shale Drilling

  • Susan Phillips

A new photo exhibit on Marcellus Shale is up at the Gershman Y in Philadelphia, and it’s worth a look if you’re in town. Several years ago six professional photographers, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, decided to document the Marcellus Shale drilling boom in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh resident Brian Cohen helped conceive the idea, and simply calls it the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project.The photographers also include Noah Addis, Nina Berman, Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson, and Martha Rial. A panel discussion and reception takes place Wednesday evening, January 23. I spoke with Brian Cohen last week as he was hanging the show in Center City Philadelphia.

Q: When was the first time you heard of fracking or Marcellus shale?

A: It really came on my radar in an immediate way when we moved to Pittsburgh, six years ago. This is a huge story, much more than any one photographer could do on their own. So I proposed a collaborative project.

Q: It’s an impressive group.

A: Yes, Lynn [Johnson] and Scott [Goldsmith] work with National Geographic, Martha [Rial] has a Pulitzer prize.

Q: What was your goal?

A: The ultimate goal was to tell this story through multiple perspectives, through different eyes, and different narrative styles. So we could have a more well rounded view of Marcellus Shale drilling than we would otherwise. There’s a lot of heat that’s generated by this subject but there’s not a lot of light and I want this project to shed some light.

Q: So what kind of light do you think it’s shed?

A: It’s a very complex story. It’s very nuanced. It’s not black or white. Anybody who tells you that natural gas drilling is all good all the time is not telling you the whole story. And anybody who tells you it’s all bad all the time is not telling you the whole story either.

Q: Did anything surprise you?

A: One day I went out with Noah [Addis] into the field and we were looking for active drill sites. And we didn’t find anything until the end of the day. And it was curious because you have this sense that it’s everywhere, that it’s this great big monster that people describe and it was actually very hard to find. So that was surprising. On the other hand, you can be in a space where you don’t see any of this stuff at all and you can turn a corner and suddenly you’re absolutely surrounded by it.

Q: What did you learn from this?

A: One of the things that I learned was just how divisive this whole process is. And it seems to drive a wedge in relationships. If you have a divided community you can play them against each other.

Q: How do you make your decisions about what you’re going to photograph?

A: Every photographer does it their own way. I’m not an aggressive person. Taking a photo of a person is a kind of invasive thing.

Q: Looking at these landscapes, you did make choices as to what to include. Here’s a farmstead, framed by a drill rig behind it, and a shopping mall off to the side.

A: That’s Pittsburgh Mills. I could have moved over and it would have disappeared from view. I think it’s important to give the audience a sense of the relationship between the places we live in and the places we mine, where we harvest these resources. I don’t think I’m doing anything dramatic. It’s important in terms of context to show here’s where we live, this is where we draw our gas.

Q: These portraits, I’ve interviewed some of these people myself.

A: Looking at Noah Addis’ photographs, he’s working with a 4 by 5 camera so the process is very different. It’s a big boxy camera on a tripod, with a drape. They’re deceptively simple, white background portraits, larger than life, where we can contemplate the faces and the people behind the story.  Skylar [Sowetsky] and her mom Kim [McEvoy] have moved away. They were in a difficult situation. Their water went bad and they lost it. And wells do dry up. But this coincided with drilling activity very close to them. [To listen to StateImpact’s radio story about Skylar and her mother Kim, click here.]

Q: Looking at Nina Berman’s photos, Cohen points out that bubbles are a theme for her. Bubbling murky tap water in a cup held by glistening purple nails, and a girl using her tap water to blow bubbles in a pastoral scene.

A: There are many many stories of people whose water has gone bad. And we should point out that methane migration is a natural phenomenon in Pennsylvania. But working as a team makes it much easier to see a pattern emerge. So when one of the team members says I saw this happen to this group of people, and another says “oh hold on I saw the same thing maybe there’s something here,” it actually gives more credence to the stories. And it helps us weed out those who are just telling stories, rather than experiencing them.

Q: Are there any photos of people benefitting from drilling?

A: Yes, over here is a man whose business is doing quite well. If you just go out and tell horrible things about the industry I don’t think anyone is going to take us seriously.

Q: What reactions have you gotten so far?

A: We have generally been received quite well. I think there is a sense that we are generally sympathetic to people who are not great fans of gas drilling.  The gas industry has decided that we are not on their side, and they don’t want to play with us. With one exception, we were given no access and no cooperation. We tried over and over again to reach out to the gas industry with virtually no success. The industry says they’re bringing great jobs to the community, so why not show us?

Q: You have beautiful photos here of flares, what’s it like being so close to a rig during a flare-off?

A: They’re captivating and fascinating and absolutely awful. But that’s not what we were trying to do, we wanted to tell human stories. The flare is part of that story but it can’t become the central part.

Q: What’s your take on gas drilling?

A: It’s apparent that there are people doing well out of this and there are people who are doing badly out of it. If we are going to do this, and I’m not a fan of it, we need to understand that there are people who are suffering as a result and we need to take ownership of that and compensate them. And we need to make their lives better rather than just trample over them and ignore them, which often happens.