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Article published November 28, 2012

Frack-tured View
Photo exhibit focuses on Marcellus drilling

By Pamela McCarrier
Eagle Staff Writer

The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project includes photographs of Butler County farms, drilling rigs and residents.

“Natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania is one of the biggest and most important stories in the history of the commonwealth,” said Brian Cohen. “It's a story that I felt needed more long-term treatment than the press is usually able to give it.”
Cohen began working with Laura Domencic, director of Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, in 2011 to organize a group of six photographers to take pictures of the effects of drilling on Pennsylvania.
“There is no political agenda,” Cohen said. “The agenda is to bring this to the people who have not necessarily thought about this in ways that we think are important.”
Domencic and Cohen started the project to promote conversations in communities. The photographs tell the story from many different views.
“It's really just this is what these photographers found. This is where they were, and this is what they found and hopefully it will just get a better conversation going instead of just the sound bites that are available,” Domencic said.
The documentary project is on display at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries until Jan. 6. A book of the photographs is on sale at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
Landscapes
Many of the photographs showcase how the environment has been affected by the gas industry.
“One of the values of a project like this is that it's a story that's directly relevant to us, but it's also a national issue,” Cohen said.
Photographer Noah Addis, who at the time of the project lived in Philadelphia and has since relocated to Columbus, Ohio, spent days just driving around looking for drilling sites.
“It's funny because I intended to do most of the work towards the middle of the state, but in the end I found landscape out here (in Butler County) that was beautiful,” Addis said.
With drilling rigs popping up throughout farmlands and valleys, the Pennsylvania landscape is changing.
“I think there's a lot of imagery that focuses on the infrastructures,” Cohen said. “... Lots of photographs of well parts, rigs and flare and the stuff, which like I said is extremely important, which constitutes a significant portion of the story.”
The photographs were taken throughout the state and throughout the year, allowing for an array of images.
“I think you can tell a lot about society by looking at the spaces and what we make of them,” Addis said.
People
Photographer Lynn Johnson lives in Pittsburgh, but travels the world for National Geographic magazine and other publications.
“I'm used to traveling the world, and I care about all the people I photograph,” Johnson said. “I would say that seeing people in my community, my state community, being so distressed and defeated, it's very disturbing.”
Johnson chose to photograph activists and others affected by natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock deep in the earth by injecting fluid into the rock. Some of the photographs in her portion of the project were taken by her iPhone.
“This is a very controversial subject and very emotionally charged for some people,” Johnson said. “So using an iPhone is a little bit less threatening because everyone takes phone photos.”
Johnson took photographs three to four years ago about gas drilling and its effects on Colorado.
“That area was one of the first areas that they say had a lot of illness as a result of the air and water contamination,” Johnson said.
She said whole communities have been torn apart.
“People who would of said 'Hello' on the street and had no animosity are now on the battle line,” Johnson said.
Photographer Scott Goldsmith did his first work on Marcellus Shale taking videos and photographs for the National Geographic report “The Great Shale Gas Rush.”
For this project, he took photographs of the Hallowich family in Hickory in Washington County.
Goldsmith said, “They built their dream house on this property and just as they finished up, there were already plans in process to drill next to their property, and they didn't know about it.”
The Hallowiches believe their water is contaminated from fracking and are suing the companies involved.
Many in the Woodlands area of the Connoquenessing Township and Evans City area also believe their water is being contaminated by fracking.
Photographs in this project show families of these areas and how they deal with the issues in day-to-day life.
Addis also decided to take portraits of the people he met. He made makeshift studios by using a white backdrop.
Culture
Cohen and Domencic began this project to bring conversation to the forefront using images.
Cohen believes it's important to have discussions and debates about big issues such as energy.
“We can have all of those discussions, but what we need to look at are the consequences of those discussions to individuals on the ground who actually have to live with what is going on,” Cohen said. “It could be negative and positive, but it's really people.”
Johnson was disturbed by the lack of a voice for people who were distraught about what was happening in their own backyards.
“I hope that the photos can travel and help people understand that they need to actually talk to each other and find a better way. If this industry is going to continue on, there needs to be a better way to do it so it isn't so harmful to the environment,” Johnson said.