Photographer’s experience in the oilfields gives him a unique perspective for his work and a deep appreciation for his fellow workers
Dylan Villenurve needed a break.
The Louisiana native climbed out of the front-end loader he had been running during his grueling 12-hour shift. He was exhausted after operating the machinery that spring 2014 night in Fairview, North Dakota.
With the sun rising, it marked a new day. But for the workers in the Bakken oilfields, every day seemed the same. Villenurve took a seat on the front edge of the bucket and paused.
“I was right there at the right moment,” says Chris Rusanowsky, Villenurve’s co-worker, who pulled out his iPhone and snapped a quick photo. “That (photo) was really strong to me because it was like the end of a battle and we survived. It’s just that tired look and his headlight pointing down to the ground and the sun coming up. It was a pretty cool shot.”
That was one of between 10,000 and 15,000 photos Rusanowsky estimates he took during his two years working in the Bakken oilfields. Rusanowsky wanted to capture the lifestyles of the young men who were working in the oftentimes rough conditions.
Rusanowsky, 25, is a photojournalist by trade; he turned his thousands of shots into a photo essay he titled, “Oil Boom Boys.” The photos convey brotherhood and camaraderie amongst the guys who grew up in completely different cultures but ended up in the same area as young adults.
“Pretty much wherever I go, my cameras go and I document everything that’s around me,” Rusanowsky says. “I thought it would be a really good piece to show the young men that are working there. Being a young man myself and going out to this place, I couldn’t really find any information about what it was going to be like out there. A lot of people I talked to were in the same boat. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. A lot of us came out there very unprepared for the weather and the workload as well. I was documenting what was going on here because it’s the United States history of the oil boom, and the opportunity it brought to young people and also the hard obstacles that came our way.”
Venturing out to the Bakken
Rusanowsky, who now resides in Los Angeles, was living in Pennsylvania in 2013 and searching for a job. He considered going into the military, but was contacted by a friend back home who had started working in the Bakken. The friend told Rusanowsky he was making good money and there were plenty of opportunities for work in the oilfields.
After doing a lot of research, Rusanowsky, who was 22 years old at the time, took a chance and moved to the heart of the Bakken near the end of 2013 to get a piece of the action. Rusanowsky met up with his friend between Fairview, North Dakota, and Sidney, Montana.
“It ended up working out in my favor,” Rusanowsky says. “I got a job that day in that area, paying triple what I was making before, so I kind of stuck with that.”
Landing a job his first 24 hours in the Bakken wasn’t too difficult.
“They hired you just because you were breathing pretty much,” Rusanowsky says. “Before I even got a drug screening, they were putting me to work.”
Rusanowsky was hired as a frac sand operator and worked primarily at a storage and loading facility. His job was to move railcars, unload railcars into trucks and other tasks involving storing and testing frac sand as well.
From the very first day Rusanowsky was working in the Bakken, he took photos. He primarily used his iPhone because it was small and compact and he couldn’t bring his DSLR camera to the work site. Shooting with an iPhone posed certain challenges – especially for lighting and exposure in the dark since he worked the night shift – but Rusanowsky was pleasantly surprised with how his shots turned out.
“The thing about the iPhone is people don’t look at you as a photographer, don’t even notice you taking a picture, so you’re able to take a more compelling shot,” Rusanowsky says. “I feel like my iPhone shots are incredibly stronger than my pictures from my DSLR.”
Rusanowsky’s bosses knew he was documenting the Bakken through his lens and they were OK with him taking photos as long as he completed his work. Rusanowsky’s co-workers became comfortable with him shooting as well. The majority of his shots were taken during 12-hour shifts, and he conducted interviews and talked to people outside of work.
“When I was working and saw a photograph arise, I pretty much saw it and took it,” Rusanowsky says. “The photography part wasn’t hard, because it just comes naturally for me to take a shot and expose it. The hard part was doing a story and taking the time to talk to these guys and really get into their lives.”
Rusanowsky enjoyed getting to know his fellow co-workers who hailed from different parts of the nation and other countries like Ukraine and South Africa.
Rusanowsky worked in Montana for three months and then in North Dakota for the remainder of his time in the Bakken. His work stops included Fairview – where he met a couple of locals who helped him out with housing – Wolf Point and Upland, Wyoming, and New Town, North Dakota. Rusanowsky eventually worked his way up to become a traveling supervisor.
By the end of 2015, there was still work in the oilfields for Rusanowsky, but due to the slowdown paychecks were shrinking due to fewer overtime hours.
“It kind of got to be pointless to be out there anymore, because you weren’t picking up any more hours or anything,” Rusanowsky says.
He decided to move to Los Angeles with a lot of memories from the last two years and almost 600 gigabytes worth of photos.
Photo by Chris Rusanowsky
Returning to the oilfields
When Rusanowsky was taking photos on the job, he snapped a great deal of portrait shots of the “Oil Boom Boys.” However, he also mixed in some landscape and equipment photos.
“Just showing everything from the intense situations to the boredom,” Rusanowsky says.
Having stored thousands of photos, Rusanowsky would pull out his computer during downtime at work and do some editing. After he returned to California, Rusanowsky got serious about paring down the collection to his favorite photos.
“I try to make my portfolio as small as possible,” Rusanowsky says. “I’m very critical of my work. I’m my biggest enemy when it comes to my work.”
Rusanowsky really loved acting as an embedded photojournalist amongst all the oilfield workers. It offered him a different and unique perspective most photographers aren’t able to feel.
“You’re really experiencing the full effect of living out there and the challenge it was to live out there,” Rusanowsky says. “You were making money, but there were so many challenges that affected your lifestyle. Actually experiencing it and living there for two years and being with these guys, the brotherhood of working together was really a big thing that got us through a lot of these things. People got depressed all the time, because there’s no release – you’re around guys 24/7 and working a hard job and not getting a lot of sleep. It got very frustrating at times. We kind of formed a friendship and a family and we got each other through it. That’s something I never experienced in my life: complete strangers really coming together as a community, just trying to get things done.”
Rusanowsky wanted to be the voice of the people working in the oilfields and tell their story. That’s what he strives for on the projects he works on.
“I feel like my job’s a public service,” Rusanowsky says. “For the guys working out there, I wanted to give them an outlet to kind of show what they’re doing with their lives and where they’re going. ... I think me being there and able to talk to them and get to know them, it helped them figure out their own lives and their own problems.”
Rusanowsky is displaying his “Oil Boom Boys” photo essay on his website www.chrisrusanowsky.com. He would like to have a gallery showing in the future and he’s also thinking about putting together a book project. Rusanowsky’s planning to head back out to the Bakken to get more photos and produce a documentary film.
“That’s one of my goals,” Rusanowsky says. “I got some great footage when I was out there and some great interviews, but I didn’t have enough to produce a film.”
Just a couple months after returning to Los Angeles, Rusanowsky caught a break and was hired as a photography contributor for Intersection Journal, a new magazine that’s being released in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. Rusanowsky will be given photo assignments in the Bakken, which will give him an opportunity to work on some of his own projects.
In the meantime, Rusanowsky is hoping “Oil Boom Boys” grabs the attention of the nation and benefits the workers in the Bakken as well as the industry as a whole.
“For companies, I hope they actually take the time to prepare workers when they first get out there,” Rusanowsky says. “There are many instances where people didn’t have money and couldn’t feed themselves and we had to help them out. They are just thrown into the workforce. They weren’t prepared with clothing or anything. There are some companies that provide it and some that don’t. The ones that don’t, it definitely gives the workers a lot of challenges to get accustomed to everything. I hope it shows how hard these people work for them and what they’re trying to do to accomplish their goals as a company. They put their heart and soul into it and they’re pretty much married to the company while they’re out there.”