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An Oil Rig Isn’t a Ficus Tree

Photography and imagery in the energy industry really has come a long way since I first entered the industry as a wet-behind-the-ears marketing communications guy back in the early 1970s. I remember all too well one of my first assignments. I was working for an energy industry magazine at the time (it was a print magazine, you remember those) and the editor wanted me to get a shot of the landscape surrounding a field of rigs in west Texas.

That was back in the day when you were both a writer AND a photographer, even if you were only trained in one of those disciplines. Also, I might add at this point, that safety measures weren’t what they are now (I’m not even sure if my car had seat belts back then), so to get a high shot of all of the surrounding area, I had to take my trusty Kodak and a couple of rolls of film (you remember that too) up to the highest point in the area, which just happened to be the top of one of the derricks.

Now, let me preface all this by letting you know that up until that time, the highest thing I ever climbed was either a) the ficus tree in our front yard when I was a small tyke growing up in Miami, or b) the steps of the Washington Monument when our marching band marched in the Cherry Blossom Festival parade when I was in high school.

“Oh, don’t worry about falling,” I was told by the foreman. “You’ll have a harness, lots of rope, and a bunch of guys here at the bottom to catch you, just in case,” he said with a snicker. After all, I was just out of college, and from Florida (even though it’s in the South, if you’re from Miami, you’re still considered a Yankee in all other parts of the South, especially Texas).

So, cramming all my fears and phobias away for the moment (they would, of course, all come out later in therapy), I started the trek up the “safety” ladder on the derrick and made my way to the top, remembering the foreman’s advice to “never look down, always look up”. Of course, much like seeing a "Wet Paint” sign, I did look down, but just once and only to make sure my feet were still attached to me.

Once at the top (or as close to the top as I could get), I clipped my harness to the upper rail, raised the camera up, turned on the auto-focus, and just started shooting in all directions. Without dwelling on the derrick adventure too much longer, let me just say that I made it down safely, and the pictures came out OK, but even with a wide-angle lens, it really didn’t give a full view of the entire oilfield.

Several months later, my editor wanted photos to go with a story I had just written about a new offshore platform that had just been commissioned offshore Louisiana. I thought to myself, “Great, at least I won’t have to climb to the top of a derrick this time”. I was almost right. My editor had chartered a helicopter to fly around the rig to get the shots. Even though I reminded him that with all the money he was spending on the helicopter rental, he could also rent a professional photographer, but even then, money was an issue, so up I went.

I had never been on a helicopter before that time. If I hadn’t been color-blind, I probably would have been on a Huey in Vietnam, but apparently the Army likes its soldiers to be able to distinguish land from water, so I was never drafted. But I digress.

The chopper took off from a parking lot close to the coast, rose very quickly (imagine the feeling you get when going downhill on a roller coaster, but in reverse) and headed several miles out to sea. During the short ride, I asked the pilot if it would be better to shoot photos out the front or side windows and he told me, “Oh, don’t worry about the windows, I’m going to open your side door, turn the chopper, and you can lean out and take your pictures”. I fully expected him to tell me not to worry about falling because there a bunch of guys down below to catch me, but that never happened. What did happen was exactly what the pilot said. We got over the new platform at about 500 feet, he tilted the chopper severely to the right, and I shot as many photos as I could, while trying to keep my donut-and-coffee breakfast down at the same time. It worked, the photos were OK, but I might add that it was the last time I was in a helicopter.

Fast forward 40 years to today, when we have satellites that orbit the Earth 15 times a day, sending back ultra-high quality photos of oilfields, offshore rigs, refineries, pipelines, and just about anything else an oil company engineer, executive, field worker, or planner could want. The first time I saw one of the amazing photos (clear enough to see the name sewn on an oilfield worker’s uniform from outer space), I thought to myself, “I wonder if I was still working at that magazine, would my editor have made me go up with the satellite.”

If so, I guess I shouldn’t worry, there’s a bunch of guys down here to catch me.

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