The Man Camps in Winter

This weekend, I am making another research trip out to the Bakken Oil Patch to document the material culture and life in the Man Camps. Part of our research team from this summer is going with us in addition to photographer Kyle Cassidy. There has been another flurry of press coverage on the Bakken this past week anchored by the massive article by Chip Brown in the New York Times Magazine with photographs by Alec Soth. The expanding content available at the multimedia documentary project, Black Gold Boom provides another source of high quality journalism related to the Bakken. We plan to meet with the local correspondent for the Forum newspapers who has done a nice job covering local issues in the boom. The content that the various media outlets produces runs from sensational to mundane, and they make a consistent effort to capture the range of stories present in the Bakken.

The media coverage puts our research in an interesting place. On the one hand, we were drawn to the Bakken for some of the same reasons as the media has been. The stories are compelling, the setting is dramatic, and the impact of the oil boom is significant for local communities, the men and women in the industry, and the environment. On the other hand, if our research is too anecdotal or if we succumb to the appeal of stories, then we run the risk of contributing little new to well-developed conversations about the Bakken.

MG 9410Photo John Holmgren

We like to imagine that our work has significant differences from the work done by journalists in the Bakken, but I think we need to articulate the differences between our work and their’s more clearly.

1. We need to be systematic. The recent maps of the “crew camps” in the Bakken area have demonstrated that work force housing is extensive, varied, and substantial in quantity. While we have visited only a small sample of the camps identified by these maps, we can use this survey to guide some of site visits on the trip this winter. I anticipate using the same basic data collection forms with some additional fields to document how the man camps adapted to the winter weather.

2. We need to archive. We collected a substantial dataset of images, drawings, and photographs this past summer and I expect that we will collect another body of information this winter as well. It currently resides safely in the cloud, but we need to begin to think carefully about how we intend to archive this data and make it available to public in a meaningful way. I could imagine an Omeka site with images and drawings from our work as well as our descriptions of camps. We also need to have a location for a physical, long term, archive for our images and I suspect that the University of North Dakota’s archive is the most suitable option.

3. We need to be longitudinal. At first, I envisioned my data collection as a one or two time trip to the Bakken. After my second data collecting trip, however, it became clear that we needed to plan to return to document some of the camps in the winter and to understand how they changed through time. This winter’s visit will help us understand how the population of camps changes in the winter and how individual unit adapted architecturally the challenges of the North Dakota climate.

4. Think collectively. As our work has progressed in the Bakken and the various research and creative interests of the participants have come together and diverged, it seems clear that a focused research project may be the least effective way of documenting life in the crew camps. In its place, I think our project is moving toward a collective model of research where a team of scholars work on their own interrelated research projects together, but write independently. The collective model allows us to pursue our independent lines of interest and to offer a diverse and nuanced perspective on the Bakken.

5. Art. There have been quite a few photo essays on the Bakken, but few of these have been articulated in a self conscious way. As we have attracted the interest of artists, we are beginning to think about how art joins into our conversation on the Bakken. In some cases, photographs become illustrations of points, but far more frequently, the art becomes an independent argument that challenges, expands, or complements our historical, archaeological, or anthropological research. Our plan is for at least one more photographer to be drawn into our research collective and – we hope – a graphic artist. 

We will need to plan a bit over the next few days to maximize our time in the Bakken this weekend, but the need to be systematic and to collect data with an eye toward producing a robust archive and to contribute to a longitudinal project will help keep us on task. 

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