For this article, I spoke with Sarah Christianson about her participation in the 2019 Review Santa Fe. In our conversation, Sarah shared her preparations for presenting her long-term project “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom,” at this prestigious juried portfolio review event. Many thanks to Sarah for her help with the development of this article.
All photos copyright protected by Sarah Christianson. Feature photo of “Sarah in Plane” by Jesse Mullan.
JW: You recently participated in Review Santa Fe. How did it go?
Sarah Christianson: It went extremely well. I had high expectations for the review sessions, and my experience exceeded those expectations. Additionally, the value I received from interacting with my fellow photographers was tremendous.
JW: Did you find your interactions with other attending photographers as valuable as the interactions you had with the reviewers?
Sarah Christianson: Yes, very much so. I love meeting other photographers and hearing about and seeing what they’re working on. Review Santa Fe was a great opportunity to continue to build my community with fellow photographers and share experiences together. It’s great because it’s not about being competitive with each other but, rather, finding things we have in common and helping each other. We’re all in the same boat together, trying to advance our careers and our work. It’s about camaraderie rather than competition.
JW: Why did you choose to participate in this particular portfolio review?
Sarah Christianson: I chose Review Santa Fe because I had attended previously in 2010 and considered it to be one of the premier portfolio review events in the country. Over the last several years, I’ve also participated in other review events, including PhotoAlliance in San Francisco, Photolucida in Portland, and Atlanta Celebrates Photography, but it’s been a while since I’ve attended a review. The last one was in 2015, I believe. I felt like it was time to get back into circulation and to update people on the body of work I’d been developing for the last seven years. It’s a project called “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again.” I had made significant progress on this project, and I felt it was time get it in front of the photography world again, to get feedback on it, and to begin lining up potential outlets for exhibitions and publication. Additionally, the timing was critical because I feel like I’m coming to the end of the project and that it will soon be ready to be presented to a larger audience.
JW: Let’s talk more about the body of work and what it means
Sarah Christianson: The full title of the project is “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom.” As I mentioned, I’ve been working on it for the last seven years, documenting the environmental impacts of the oil boom and fracking on western North Dakota. I was born and raised in North Dakota, and through my maternal grandparents, my family inherited mineral rights and is profiting from this oil boom. I started the project as a way to look at the hidden costs of this prosperity, and the environmental impacts that weren’t being talked about in mainstream media.
JW: How was the work received at Review Santa Fe?
Sarah Christianson: Overall, I received great feedback, which helped to underscore how close I am to being finished with the project. I had a lot of questions in my mind about the work before I went, and those questions were answered in terms of the potential for exhibitions and the larger reach of the work. The review process helped clarify that I’m on the right track and that I should just keep going, forging ahead toward completion of the project, which I feel is near.
JW: What are the markers that are telling you that you might be getting close to the end of this project?
Sarah Christianson: There are several things that are happening simultaneously. First, I’m becoming interested in other ideas that I want to explore in new projects. Second, my image-making is much more concentrated and directed when I’m back home in North Dakota. I’m only looking for specific things to fill in gaps. After working for so long on this project, I feel like I had a strong overarching narrative, but I found that there were still certain gaps that I needed to address. I had a great assortment of images that spoke to the environmental impacts of fracking—oil and saltwater spills, pipeline installations, and flaring from wells—but a part of the story was missing that really tied it all together.
JW: How did you solve that problem?
Sarah Christianson: I realized I needed a set of objective eyes to help assess the work. So, I reached out to my friend Roula Seikaly for help. She is a Berkeley-based writer, curator, and senior editor at Humble Arts Foundation. From conversations with Roula, it became clear that I needed to create distinct chapters out of the 48 images that comprise the project thus far, and to have discrete narratives within those chapters that tie cohesively to the larger theme of the work.
JW: What are the chapters you created for the project?
Sarah Christianson: The first chapter is called “Bakken Hell,” which centers on the experience of a family friend, Carole Freed, and how the Bakken oil boom has changed her way of life. There is a portrait of her in this chapter in which she’s standing in the doorway of her home. In the image, you can see part of the exterior of her house, where she posted “No Trespassing” signs and this placard that contains a riot act message to the industry that states things like, “If you’re looking to install pipelines on my land, go away!” and “If you’re here to lease our mineral rights, go away! We have enough wealth!” The portrait captures much about Carole’s plight: the way she has been trapped inside her property—physically and psychologically—by the encroachment of wells, pipelines, and natural gas processing plants that have transformed the agrarian landscape surrounding her ranch into an industrialized zone. With the industry’s development looming all around her ranch, she has lost the freedom of movement she once had as a resident of a quiet, rural community.
The title of the second chapter is taken from a newspaper headline: “King Oil Dethrones King Ag.” That chapter looks at the environmental effects on farm and ranch land via pipelines and spills.
The third chapter is titled after the Lakota expression “Mni wičoni—Water Is Life.” This chapter looks at the impacts of fracking on the Fort Berthold Reservation as well as the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline that took place at Standing Rock, south of Bismarck.
The last chapter is a reiteration of the main project title, “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom,” which is taken from a speech given in 1973 by North Dakota Governor Arthur Link. In that speech, Governor Link talks about finding a way to balance the development of the state’s natural resources with good stewardship of the land for future generations.
This last chapter represents an arc that encompasses a series of boom-to-bust cycles that have impacted the region, bestowing prosperity to some and environmental degradation to others. The current North Dakota fracking spree has seen over 10,000 new oil wells drilled, yet there are still more than 600 abandoned wells from the two prior booms that have not been cleaned up. This chapter asks the viewer to fast-forward into the future to imagine what will be left behind when the oil dries up and the industry moves on to the next opportunity. In that future, what will our grandchildren say to us about the land we left to them? How will they assess our stewardship and the actions we took?
As I resolved the issues related to the project narrative, I felt like the completion of this work was in sight. I also noticed that when I’m out photographing for the project, I’m not as frantic as I used to be. I’m much more selective in what and how I’m photographing because I’m trying to fill in gaps within the project to bring it to completion.
JW: I imagine Carole’s experience is one of many similar stories that are playing out with the fracking boom in the area.
Sarah Christianson: Yes. Carole’s experience is indicative of the experiences of many people there. So many have up and left, breaking those strong family roots and ties that were developed over generations on the land. She keeps mentioning that it is only a matter of time before she must act on the decision to leave.
JW: I assume there are photos of the property that your family once owned?
Sarah Christianson: Yes. That’s the section of the project that has been the hardest to do and the part I have yet to finalize. I am still photographing the land that my family homesteaded in 1912, and then sold in the 1960s. When it was sold, our family retained the mineral rights underneath the land, and so that’s how my family is involved in the oil boom without living there currently.
This chapter, the final one, is yet to be named. It is composed of images of the homestead and the old shack my family built when they were first living there, the family headstone and plot in the cemetery, the wells that we are profiting from. Those images still feel disjointed—I can’t quite make sense of them yet
JW: The editing of all those images must have been difficult.
Sarah Christianson: Yes. That is why it was important to show the work to Roula to prepare for the review (and others, too, along the way) because I was too close to the project to be objective. I had made initial edits, paring it down to around 20 images per section, but I knew that was still too many. It was difficult to look at my own work critically. There are always images that are hard to let go of because you’re invested in and emotionally tied to them. But it is essential to do so to make the narrative stronger.
With Roula’s help, I was able to edit each section down to 12 images. She pushed me to get it down to 10, but I just couldn’t do it! The portfolio I presented in Santa Fe consisted of 48 total images, which is a lot. Some reviewers made their way through all of them, some didn’t. I didn’t feel that those who didn’t get through all of the images had missed anything because each section is discrete, and I was able to get useful feedback on those sections of the project they had time to review.
JW: What was some of the most helpful feedback you were given about the project?
Sarah Christianson: The overall consensus from everyone who reviewed the project was that it is ready to be a part of exhibitions. In preparation for Review Santa Fe, I printed out four installation shots of previous exhibitions of the work that incorporated installation elements such as infographic vinyl timelines that showed the history of our family in relation to the history of oil booms in the state. The installation photos also showed a wall of contact sheets that was 16 feet by 10 feet, which served to overwhelm the viewer in terms of the size and number of images that were taken. I also included installation shots that illustrate different display methods in grid formats and the timeline graphics in vertical triptychs. I felt it was important to be able to show reviewers from galleries and museums the solutions I had come up with for other exhibit spaces.
JW: How important is it to be able to show exhibition/display solutions to that audience?
Sarah Christianson: It is extremely important because I was targeting galleries and museums that would be most likely to be interested in this project. It also helps in terms of efficiency because rather than spending precious time describing what an exhibition of the work would look like, I had these images to show them and answer their questions.
JW: Were there any other specific goals that you attained from the reviews?
Sarah Christianson: Yes. Getting recommendations for contacts from the reviewers I spoke with is a valuable way to build my network. One immediate tangible outcome is that Bree Lamb, managing editor at Fraction Magazine, with whom I met, chose images from my project for publication in Issue 128, which is now out.
Cameras, film and other equipment used by Sarah for this project:
- Toyo 4×5 Field Camera
- Pentax 6×7 for all aerial shots.
- Film: Kodak Portra 4×5 and 120 films
- Imacon Flextight 848 scanner
- Epson SureColor P8000 44″ wide inkjet printer
Sarah scans and prints all images in her studio in Oakland, Calif.
About Sarah Christianson
Sarah Christianson earned an MFA in photography from the University of Minnesota. Her work has been exhibited internationally and can be found in the collections of Duke University, the National Museum of Photography in Copenhagen, and several institutions in the Midwest. She has received grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Center for Cultural Innovation. Christianson’s first book, Homeplace (Daylight Books, Fall 2013), documents the history and uncertain future of her family’s farm by interweaving her images with old snapshots and historical documents culled from her personal archive. Her current project, When the Landscape is Quiet Again, examines the oil boom occurring in western North Dakota. Throughout her work, she uses her personal experiences and connection to the land to evoke a strong sense of place, history, and time.
About Review Santa Fe
Review Santa Fe is a premier juried portfolio review event that takes place during the annual Review Santa Fe Photo Festival—a weekend conference and festival for photographers who have created a documentary project or fine art series and are seeking audience expansion, critical discussion, and community gathering in a unique place. The Review Santa Fe Photo Festival is produced by CENTER, a not-for-profit arts organization that honors, supports, and provides opportunities to gifted and committed photographers. Visit CENTER at https://visitcenter.org.