[We were] trying to create a narrative around the daily life of these individuals that is consistent with what a work day is like and still sells it as an enjoyable place to work. It was my job to remain close to the actuality of the place and the surroundings.
Therein lay Adrian’s first challenge: capturing the sense that these people enjoy what they do while making sure to stay true to the fractional distillation plant’s location.
This plant, like most I shoot for this work, is very rural and near sparsely populated townships. Messer recently acquired a few of these fractional distillation plants and is looking to increase the number of employees at this and other locations. They’re looking to gain and retain employees that might decide to move from fairly far away, so if I oversell this with the photos — make it look like something completely different than what the reality is — those people are not going to stick around.
Adrian landed this assignment because of his longstanding relationship with HireStory, a company that “produces HR recruitment videos and media for organizations looking to increase their visibility to qualified candidates and potential hires.” The Arizonan’s stills go through Bayard Advertising, which works with Messer to spread the word about the gas company’s job openings. Even though this shoot was Adrian’s first collaboration with Messer, he’s a veteran of this kind of project and was granted total creative autonomy as a result.
[These shoots] are all very similar in the way that we’re using current employees in their current positions and shooting editorial type photos to tell the story of what their normal day is like. I had a few [specific] guidelines, most of which were centered around safety, and a basic itinerary to ensure we captured every section that needed to be covered, but other than that I was given full creative control.
The [Messer] production was fairly minimal, and I think that helped the people we were documenting to feel more at ease. They [quickly] settled in and forgot I was around. I had a full bag of lenses and light available, but I shot the candid stuff very light.
This being a photography blog and not an energy blog, you’re probably wondering just what on earth fractional distillation entails. Adrian had certainly never heard of the process before this undertaking, but he became pretty well-versed by the end of the shoot.
They pump in the air from around the plant, and then, through a process of heating and cooling and fractional distillation, they remove the impurities that they don’t need and separate the air into oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and argon. The remainder of the air is pumped back into the atmosphere, and, through a process of extreme cooling, they turn those elements into liquid where they can be pumped into trucks and shipped out.
Alright, so there’s a whole lot going on here, which birthed a second challenge for Adrian: how could he capture the chaos of this operation? Here’s how:
I love the steam shots. They make the whole process seem a little more dramatic and exciting. I think they show a little more about how something that feels like an everyday thing for these employees can seem much more exciting and mystical to people who haven’t been exposed to it.
Because of the extreme temperatures to which they need to drop the gasses in order to turn them into liquid, there’s amazing amounts of steam and ice everywhere. In places, it feels like you’re walking around the engine room of the Millennium Falcon. The pipes drip water so cold it can burn you, so you have to be wary of your surrounding constantly.
Despite the fact that parts of the plant gave off a Star Wars-esque vibe, Adrian’s favorite aspect of the project was working with the employees themselves.
Overall, I really enjoyed shooting the portraits. I had full reign of where I could set people up, and I got to choose my looks and models. We took a rickety staircase to the top of the cooling tower to get a nice portrait with a good overall view. I knew I had to get up there to shoot something.
Even though the subjects were game, the weather wasn’t. Adrian’s third and final challenge was negotiating the cooling tower’s shaky staircase while battling heavy winds.
We did portraits on top of the tower in 15-20 mph winds using a soft box and a reflector. The sound of the massive pumps and wind made it difficult to hear or communicate, and the wind was constantly trying take my gear. It was a fun experience, and the photos appear calm and collected.
Ultimately, the employees’ accessibility turned what could have been an arduous process into a relative cinch.
The people who were available were extremely nice and easy to get along with. Interacting with them to get nice shots was a lot of fun, and they made it much easier than it could have been.
See more of Adrian’s work at adriantbaird.com.
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