Despite the changing face of rural western North Dakota, some things remain the same. Reminiscent of the days of staking land claims and weathering the brutal winters, residents of the Bakken region are maintaining their resiliency and work ethic amidst the shift from farming to drilling.
While some have moved here to capitalize on the high wages and available jobs, others are taking it upon themselves to document the growth of the area and to tell the stories of the people making it their home. One such person is Chad Ziemendorf, creator of the Intersection Journal, an online photo essay blog that combines photography and story-telling to paint a portrait of the shifting landscape and lifestyle, particularly in Watford City, North Dakota.
“The Intersection Journal is a metaphor on many different levels,” says Ziemendorf. Watford City is the literal crossing where oil and gas operations merge, he says. “You can’t go from one side of the oil field to the other without travelling through Watford City. It’s where Williston comes into contact with Dickinson, New Town, and the east side [of the Bakken formation]. They all have to come through there,” he said.
But the area is also a metaphor for Ziemendorf’s own personal discovery. He said, “Photography helps me find my place in the world and evaluate the place around me and interpret it … So it’s my own personal intersection with North Dakota and the world around me.”
Ziemendorf grew up in the greater San Francisco Bay area, near Silicon Valley. He said that despite the fun of being surrounded by so much entrepreneurial activity, a sense of community was always lacking. While he was attending college, he was drafted to the Cinncinatti Reds and played for a few years before the injuries started to catch up with him. During this time he met his wife, who grew up in Watford City. From various trips to North Dakota to visit extended family, he started to become acquainted with the lifestyle and the area.
They got married in Watford City in 2006, when the rural community had a humble population of around 1,600. With frequent travels back home to visit family, he was able to witness the growing pains of the area first hand.
He said, “It’s kind of like watching your nephew grow up from afar, and you come back and see him and wonder what happened.” As oil rigs started moving into town, he began to realize what was happening. Ziemendorf knew that he was being presented with a unique opportunity to tell a narrative story from multiple perspectives.
After retiring from baseball, Ziemendorf decided to pursue a career in commercial real estate just before the economic recession of 2008. After struggling with the failing market, he decided to go back to school and finish his degree at San Jose State where he majored in communications studies. However, he ended up spending most of his time in the photojournalism department, despite it having nothing to do with his degree.
It was there that he picked up a camera for the first time and began to explore his passion for combining visual and narrative story-telling under the guidance of a Pulitzer prize winning mentor, Kim Komenich. He began shooting for the school newspaper, and under the guidance of the faculty, was provided with invaluable feedback and critique.
In 2010 he was hired as a photo-intern for the San Francisco Chronicle and went on to work for Reuters shortly after. During this time he was also shooting for The Registry, a bay area real estate magazine. “I was a freelancer in every sense of the word,” he said. He was shooting content for magazines, commercial projects, news, corporate headshots, and architecture. Then, in 2012, he deliberately cut ties with the news to make a living for his family. He began shooting commercial architecture full time as a means to save up for the Intersection Journal and a subsequent documentary project.
The idea for the journal first came to him in 2011, but due to various life circumstances, he wasn’t able to relocate to Watford City and begin the work until April of 2014. Working in San Francisco as a commercial photographer provided him the funding necessary to personally finance the project. The more he got into the project, the more he realized it was going to be something much more permanent. He said, “A lot of stories have been written about this place, but I wanted to give myself the opportunity to tell a deeper story … Something that is truly authentic and told from the inside out and from multiple perspectives.”
“One thing that I’ve found, when you really dig into people’s lives and embed yourself in the culture and the community, is that you really start to see the depth of what the area’s story is and how deep it goes,” he said. What Ziemendorf loves most about the area is being a part of the community. He commented on being “glad to finally be out of the gate and is very pleased with how well it’s been received. I’m looking forward to doing something positive for the community.”
Currently, he says, “I’ve witnessed more stories than I will ever have time to tell.” The project isn’t only going to be confined to the online journal, though. Within a year and half, Ziemendorf hopes to have several exclusive stories culminated into a print publication, creating an even more comprehensive portrait of what’s happening. He also thinks western North Dakota is ready for the arts to be integrated into its culture and eventually plans to offer photography education workshops.
For now, though, he’s busy exploring the expanding universe of the Bakken. “I have more on my plate than I’ll ever be able to get to. The stories I encounter have lead me to a whole other realm of curiosity that leads me to the next story. I find the stories by being curious and by being a part of the community, by asking questions, following my nose and instincts, and continuing to push on.”