WILLISTON, N.D. – North Dakota’s oil boom is allowing a Fargo woman to make a living doing what she loves.
Renae Mitchell always had a passion for photography and decided to make it her profession in 2010.
Initially, the single mother of two had a tough time making ends meet with a photography business.
Then she decided to showcase some of her work in her hometown of Williston, one of her favorite areas to photograph. One of the images she took for fun that she later added to her portfolio is a silhouette of a drilling rig north of Williston against a sunset.
“The sunsets out here are to die for,” said Mitchell, 41.
She caught the attention of some oil company representatives who were looking for wall decor for their new North Dakota offices.
“That’s when I discovered there was a niche to be had,” Mitchell said.
She built up her portfolio with more oilfield photography and pounded the pavement to find customers.
Nabors Drilling in Williston hired Mitchell to photograph all 65 of the company’s rigs that are operating in North Dakota.
Dolly Ramsey, district training supervisor for Nabors in Williston, said she saw Mitchell’s work during an event and liked the way Mitchell can capture a drilling rig.
“She can bring life to it and make it original and new,” Ramsey said.
Mitchell travels from Fargo to Williston every other week to do work for clients, a 400-mile commute she has grown accustomed to.
Her clients include the North Dakota Petroleum Council and various oil companies, but she also has done work for a bank, a hotel and media publications. She frequently goes to Denver to meet with company representatives and will do her first aerial photography this month.
“I’m going to ride it as long as I can,” she said.
Mitchell said she now makes enough money to pay the bills, have play time with her kids and save money for the future.
“If you’re not making money out here, you’re not thinking hard enough,” she said.
Most companies hire her to photograph rigs or equipment, but Mitchell wishes more would request her to photograph the workers.
“To me, it’s the people that make the difference,” Mitchell said. “I marvel at how hard these people work.”
While the oil boom is providing her opportunities, Mitchell is nostalgic for the Williston she knew as a child. The quiet farm where she grew up, near what locals call the 13-mile corner, now has a truck stop, 200-bed man camp and oil wells nearby.
The road where her father now lives is now busy with oil wells, truck traffic, a gravel pit and a salt water disposal well.
“I had a childhood that in my mind will always be perfect and pristine, but now this totally feeds my adrenaline junkie side,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell owns land near Williston and someday would like to return permanently.
“It will always be home, no matter how much it’s changed,” Mitchell said. “It will always be home to me.”
A photo gallery of Mitchell’s work is available here.