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Images into Action
For communities torn apart by fracking, the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project updates the social-realism of Dust-Bowl era photojournalists Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

From 1935 to 1944, the Information Division of the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA), a rural anti-poverty program designed to help those most severely affected by the Great Depression, sponsored one of the most artistically fruitful and emotionally powerful photojournalism projects in the history of the medium. Dispatching then-relatively-unknown talents like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to some of the most forlorn rims of the Dust Bowl, the FSA then gave the portraits these photographers took of tenant farmers and migrant workers to newspapers and magazines free of charge, thus bringing to millions of Americans stark, shocking, and—yes—beautiful images that helped rally public support for government relief programs.

The FSA project was a high-water mark of social-realist photojournalism. It was certainly in the back of photographer Brian Cohen’s mind when he first began thinking about capturing the ways that fracking has altered the terrain and character of his home state of Pennsylvania. Cohen, who grew up in London but now lives in Pittsburgh, has come to love rural Pennsylvania as a lushly verdant landscape flowing with rivers, streams, and lakes. But as he learned more about the fracking operations that have popped up all along the Marcellus Shale—a swath of land that stretches for 600 miles over parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and other states in the Appalachian Basin—he began to grow concerned.

A typical fracking operation requires billions of gallons of water, all of which must be disposed of somehow once the particularly water-intensive form of drilling that fracking entails is over. If this post-fracking water is improperly handled and/or allowed to seep back into the groundwater supply, it stands a good chance of contaminating the aquifers on which so many rural families depend for their day-to-day water needs. Cohen felt it was his duty, as both a photojournalist and a Pennsylvanian, to do whatever he could to draw attention to a practice that he felt threatened the health of the people, plants, and wildlife atop the Marcellus Shale.

Documentary photojournalists tend to work alone: lugging their own equipment, wearing the tread off of their own car tires, and learning to do without the fancy perquisites afforded to other professional photographers who work in fields like fashion, advertising, or magazine publishing. Theirs is definitely the no-frills side of a photographic career path. But they choose this line of work because they feel that the stories they want to tell must be told—and that the images they’re capable of providing are the most direct and powerful way of telling it.

Early on in his project, Cohen realized two things. One was that fracking wasn’t a local issue: it was a national one, marked by a multiplicity of local angles. The other was that fracking’s impact on communities and the environment was far too big a story for one person to tell. He felt certain that the best way to address it was to organize a group of other photographers whose work he greatly admired and who shared his concerns. With his acclaimed photojournalist peers—Lynn JohnsonMartha RialNina BermanScott Goldsmith, and Noah Addis—he formed the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project (MSDP) in 2011, with the stated goal of using photography as a catalyst for generating a discussion about fracking’s impact, both locally and nationally. Images from this collective effort have been printed in numerous newspapers and magazines (including OnEarth), and have been turned into a traveling exhibition combining images and lectures.

MSDP photographer Nina Berman has been documenting fracking’s impact on families in rural Bradford and Susquehanna Counties since 2010. In areas marked by dirt roads, sparse commercial activity, and no cell-phone signals, she has chronicled the decline in health of families who live near active fracking wells. Her subjects suffer from massive seizures, unexplained rashes, and frequent nausea; they test positive for radon exposure; their farm animals have died. Berman has also focused her lens on the air pollution that’s as much a part of modern-day fracking as the water pollution, though it may get less attention. Rig operators test the production of their newly-fracked wells with open flares that release a number of toxic chemicals into the air. Her nighttime shots of the eerie orange light given off by these flares as it illuminates homes, barns, and desolate roadways are paradoxically gorgeous and menacing.

For Lynn Johnson, the act of documenting fracking’s impact on the lives and communities of rural Pennsylvanians echoed a story she had photographed for OnEarth back in 2006 on the emergence of fracking in Colorado; in both states, Johnson saw families struggling to cope with neurological issues, sick children, polluted well water and social turmoil. She says she’s often drawn to what she calls the “accidental activist”—in many cases a woman who has never before thought of herself as political, but who now finds herself compelled to act once the threats posed by fracking begin to encroach on her family’s territory. Johnson is moved, she told me, by the courage it takes for these individuals to speak out—at real risk of ostracism by neighbors, friends, and even extended-family members.

Scott Goldsmith’s focus was to draw more attention to the manner in which post-fracking wastewater is handled—or mishandled. “The water that comes out of the ground after fracking has radioactive elements in it,” he told me. “It’s full of chemicals, but there’s never enough room to store it all. Some of the ponds leak. And some of the water gets trucked away by third parties who illegally dump it into streams and other places.” From his work, Goldsmith soon came to realize that the people most adversely affected by fracking were those least able to fight back: the elderly man living alone in a doublewide, or the rural family that’s living in modest circumstances and is simply trying to get by. As he has noted: you generally don’t find fracking rigs in middle-class or upper-class neighborhoods.

In talking to Cohen and his MSDP colleagues, I received a blunt education in the microeconomics of fracking—and also in the psychology of landowners, some of whom are willing to lease their property to energy companies in return for monthly checks as low as $500. Entry-level laborers and truck drivers working the Marcellus Shale can make $40,000 a year; those working the rigs can easily make twice that. But the anguished faces on many of the MSDP’s photographic subjects tell the more complicated stories that emerge only after someone has already signed on the dotted line: the toll taken by a protracted illness, the anger between once-amicable neighbors who will never see eye-to-eye on the issue, the social dissension that fracking sows in communities as doubts about the practice’s safety compete for psychic space with hopes for a solid paycheck or a quick payout.

In the end, just as fracking is too big a story for one photographer to tell, so too may it prove too long a story for one generation of photographers to capture. As Martha Rial told me: “This isn’t just one chapter in my career—the work is just beginning.” The debate over fracking, she feels certain, “isn’t going anywhere.”

Images (in order): Noah Addis, Nina Berman, Nina Berman, Lynn Johnson, Scott Goldsmith, Martha Rial

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image of Gail Henry
Gail Henry is OnEarth's photo editor. She was previously the dIrector of photography for Yahoo Internet Life and has worked for other national magazines, including Golf, Men's Health, and Sports Illustrated. MORE STORIES ➔