Denver-based photographer Morgan Rachel Levy finds that she’s consistently drawn to projects that allow her to explore the psychology of people and place. With “As Soft as the Earth Is,” her series that explores the impact of the fracking industry on communities in North Dakota, she again takes the opportunity to photograph the psychology of people, landscape, and the effect of one on the other. We asked her about this thoughtful, and topical, series.
First off, can you tell me about this project and how you got involved with it?
At face value, As Soft As The Earth Is is about the impact of fracking on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota; but at its core, it’s a project about the rippling effects of repeated trauma and how people reconcile morally complex issues.
In the past year I’ve traveled to North Dakota three times to create a broad, humanistic portrait of the people and landscape impacted by the fracking industry on the affiliated Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes. The dramatic industrial transformation that’s taken place affects individuals in the community in vastly different ways. Since February 2015, I’ve worked to understand and represent these diverse perspectives through photographs and interviews. In addition to the extractable minerals deep in the earth under Fort Berthold are layers of history, culture, trauma and resilience. The time I’ve spent on the reservation thus far has made clear that these substrata, though less tangible, play a fundamental role in understanding how fracking has altered the present-day social, political, and physical landscape of Fort Berthold.
The work wasn’t born out of an interest in a story about fracking explicitly. In November 2014, the New York Times published a series of articles about the oil and gas industry in North Dakota. Regarding Fort Berthold, the articles centered on the not insignificant problem of tribal government corruption. However, the series loosely touched on the literal and metaphorical scars being inflicted by the industry on the people and landscape. I became curious about who those people were, what those landscapes looked like. I felt a pull to depict them more fully. And it struck me that there was a bigger story worth looking at. I have my very dear friend Teresa to thank for introducing me to this community as much of her family resides there.
Did you face any challenges with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?
As an outsider, one of the greatest hurdles to overcome so far has been earning the trust of community members. I’ve worked through this challenge by continuing to show up and make myself present as much as I can. Additionally, I stay in touch with people when I’m not there. I feel fortunate to have already developed close relationships with certain individuals.
What has been your favorite part of this project?
Learning about a community, a culture, and a place that is very different from where I grew up has certainly been the most enjoyable parts of this experience. I’ve spent most of my life living in costal cities, so spending time in this part of the country and in this landscape has been a pleasure and an education. I’ve realized working on Ft. Berthold that I’m pulled toward small Northern communities and that this is an environment in which, curiously, I feel at home.
What are your future plans for this project?
A vital part of my process so far has been to spend extended time with my subjects prior to photographing them as I’m trying to translate sentiments and ideas expressed verbally into visual imagery. And I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of the project. So I plan to continue returning to Ft. Berthold until I feel I’ve adequately served the story and represented the experiences of community members. I plan to exhibit the images and excerpts from interviews online and in physical form.