“I think what you do is cool and important. I’d like to take your picture. Simple as that.”
I’ve actually been thinking about the Wind Portrait Project for a few years, and finally, the stars aligned and my schedule cooperated enough so that I could begin. The basic concept is this:
I’ve done other portrait projects in the past, for volunteers and participants in sporting events, non-profits and for a few charities that I’m involved with. I’ve always enjoyed thinking about and documenting different communities. When I say communities, I’m referring to a group of individuals that make up a certain specific subset of people. Truck drivers are a community, the congregation of a church is a community.
People who work in wind energy are a community.
The Wind Portrait Project has three elements. There is a documentary component, where I ask: Who are the people helping to shape the future of energy production? Let’s show that those people are real, and those jobs are real. What are the stories of how those individuals got involved in wind energy? What does it mean to them? What are the challenges?
There is a fine art aspect to the project. I try to create simple and honest portraits of actual workers. By choosing a basic background, and lighting the portrait simply, I’m able to eliminate distractions for the viewer. I’ll occasionally take a scene-setting photograph to give the viewer an idea of where people are working, but the majority of the portraits are tight and focused on the individual. I’m trying to make real connections with the subjects. Sometimes I have an afternoon, and sometimes I have 90 seconds with a person. Whether I’m working with the head of wind construction for a company, or a fork lift driver in a blade factory, I give them the same respect, and hopefully the same level of attention. Everyone who steps in front of the camera is important to me.
The third part of this project, which happens by default, is networking. As a commercial photographer, I’m looking to connect with businesses and organizations. It’s a much more enjoyable way to make a living working with clients whose products and services you believe in and respect. I figured I could mail out a thousand postcards, destined for a thousand recycling bins, or I could hit the road, shake some hands, make some portraits, and when annual report time comes around, perhaps folks will remember me.
When I begin a portrait project, I’m always looking to show the people involved in different roles. It’s the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker approach.
Who plays those roles in wind energy? Six months ago, the idea was to photograph wind techs, crane operators, some executives, and a handful of other players. Then the project took off. People really seemed to get what I was striving for, even if I hadn’t completely realized it myself.
In only five months, I’ve photographed more than 300 people in jobs from meteorology to finance, from wildlife protection to tower climbers. I suppose I should have realized this at the beginning, but the variety of jobs in wind is just staggering. The same can probably be said for a lot of industries, but when you factor in all the different elements involved in renewable energy production, I’m hard pressed to come up with one industry that offers such depth in occupations. Someone in front of a computer and a wind tunnel has to design and build the wind turbine, but someone in the Mojave has to lug 80 pounds of gear up a chain to service it.
I’ve photographed in office buildings in Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., and in the blistering heat of Texas and Arkansas. I’ve crossed the U.S. east to west twice, and north to south once, with many stops along the way.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people who are starting their wind careers right out of high school, and others who have ended up in wind after several jobs.
As more people learn about the project, and I receive more inquiries from folks who would like to participate, I’ve had to modify my end goals and travel plans. What started as a six month project has developed into something that I can see taking at least two years to finish.
The Wind Portrait Project at this point is entirely self funded. That means I’ve had to incorporate day trips here and there as I do work for other non-wind energy clients, and make quick trips to wind sites while on vacation. Dealing with those logistical and travel issues is all part of the fun. Can I drive from Abilene to Lubbock to Dallas, catch a flight to Salt Lake City, make a portrait and then drive three hours to photograph the Tower Climbing Grease Monkeys? As it turns out, I can. I don’t want to try and repeat that too often, but it can be done.
The Final Product
My original intent was to have this project exist only online through Instagram, Facebook, and other social media outlets, but the more I became involved in the subjects and their stories, the more I realized that there could be some interest and potential for other ways to share the work. I’m in early discussions with a gallery in Texas to put on an exhibit, and depending on the success of that, I could see the possibility of putting on shows in connection with regional wind energy organizations. There is also so potential for a photo book. I’ve never created or published a book before, other than portfolios, so there will be a steep learning curve for me, and I’m a long way from being finished.
I’ve already been asked to speak and give a brief presentation about the project for a company, and sharing the project that way is both exciting and fulfilling for me.
The more people I photograph, the more I realize that everyone in this industry is connected, and in a very real way, relying on each other for success. The CEO needs the wind tech. The welder needs the truck driver. The farmer with two turbines on his farm needs the legal team.
Illustrating those relationships with portraits has been an incredible experience.