Sweet Crude: Photographing an Oil Boom Town


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Sweet Crude: Photographing an Oil Boom Town

The recent oil boom has transformed practically every aspect of Williston, North Dakota, and the surrounding area.

I came back to the apartment to find Laura sitting at the kitchen table, upset. She said she had just gotten off the phone with the district attorney's office in New Orleans, and they told her that since her ex-boyfriend did not stab or shoot her but beat her up without a weapon, he would get a maximum sentence of six months in jail.

"I was getting comfortable knowing that he was going to jail, and now it's like, 'Bam! He's free!' But the good thing is that if he beats somebody else up, it's his third offense and he's going away for life. So now I am just crossing my fingers that he beats another motherfucker up? That is stupid. That's just stupid," Laura said. "That just kills me."


Laura moved from New Orleans to Williston, North Dakota, in 2013 to be with her boyfriend and the father of her youngest son, who had moved to Williston months earlier to find work and to escape charges in Louisiana.

The recent oil boom has transformed practically every aspect of Williston and the surrounding area.

In particular, episodes of domestic violence have skyrocketed since the boom began. A local shelter reports that, prior to 2009, it was occupied for approximately 15 nights a year. Now the shelter is rarely unoccupied.

When it comes to domestic violence in the United States, Williston is notable for a unique set of circumstances that allow for a rise in sexual trauma: the transient nature of the workforce, the isolation that many women experience when they move away from their friends and families, and the remote environment. Yet Williston is not the only place where these issues play out. The struggles that these individuals and families face, when confronting and recovering from instances of domestic violence and sexual trauma, are common all over the country.

These are photos from my time spent in Williston. None of them depict perpetrators of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Makeup disguises Laura’s fractured eye socket as she prepares to board a train home. After a night of heavy drinking with friends, she woke up in a hotel room with her ex-boyfriend choking her and kicking her in the groin. She moved to Williston with her current boyfriend to seek work less than three weeks prior.

A mother of four speaks to police officers about the restraining order her husband placed on her. She has not seen her children in more than a week, the longest she has ever been away from them.

A week after Laura’s attack, she’s still experiencing severe pain in her groin and eye.

Laura takes late-night baths to soothe her anxiety attacks. After her ex-boyfriend was released from jail, he actively searched for her and her son.

“Should I have shot him? Tell me. What would have happened if I shot him?” Laura asks the police officer, who is filing a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend.

A gas fire smokes in the distance of the Ridge, Williston’s first master-planned community.

While sipping whiskey, oil workers carry fireworks to the Epping-Springbrook Dam on July 4, 2014.

A man leaves the parking lot at the Cash Wise grocery store during winter 2013.

A bit welder smokes a cigarette at his home in Williston. During summer 2013, there was a severe housing shortage, and housing prices dramatically rose after the oil boom began.

“As long as the boom ain’t over and I ain’t in prison—both are distinct possibilities—make no mistake, I’ll be out here,” a man says. He has been living in Williston and working in the oil field for three years.

You know what’s nice?” Laura says on the way out of the gas station. “Being able to get in the car and go to the store. Without asking.”

A child has a tantrum on July 4, 2013.

A dust storm rolls over New Town, North Dakota.

A girl moves out of a shelter with her mother and three siblings. During the time the family stayed there, the mother was demoted at work because her boss thought that her personal life got in the way of her job.