Oil industry in Scotland: Making photographs, making demands
Oil industry in Scotland: Making photographs, making demands

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Oil industry in Scotland: Making photographs, making demands

1 Capturing the oil industry

The oil industry is perhaps the archetypal globalised industry. Dominated by a few multi-national companies, it is highly centralised at the level of corporate power but, like corporations, investment and trade in the oil industry are also highly mobile. The long reach of the global oil economy is a consequence of the distance between the location of significant oil reserves and the location of the major markets for oil. The reserves of oil currently expected to last more than fifty years are all in the Middle East; most of the nations needing large amounts of oil to fuel their economies are not. The global market in oil straddles this distance.

Many countries with either small or no oil supplies of their own – notably the USA, China and several countries in Europe – need steady and guaranteed supplies of imported oil. Since so much of the stability of these economies and countries depends on this fuel, they also have political reasons for trying to ensure the reliability of those supplies. The most obvious demonstration of this, many would contend, was the invasion of Iraq in 2002 by a coalition of countries led by the USA. Some commentators at the time argued that this war was an attempt to control the price, conditions and distribution of the most important economic resource on which the USA depended: oil.

The significance of the oil industry in Scotland is due in some measure to the way it is part of the political and economic relations that span the globe. This makes a place like Aberdeen very dependent on distant events. In terms of making photographs that draw attention to this dependency, it is the global extent of the oil industry that poses challenges for a photographer. How can the full dimensions of the oil industry be adequately represented in a photograph? Like many other global phenomena, the oil economy cannot be made visible to a single camera's eye. Moreover, what is shown in the mass media is patterned in particular ways. An example of this is the representation of poorer countries, but images of global industries are also mediated. The life of an oil platform is mostly invisible to the general public buying petrol at their local garage, and the complex role of the oil industry in so much of global economics and politics is rarely shown. As the news photographer Susan Meiselas has remarked, ‘the larger sense of the image has been defined elsewhere, in Washington, in the press, by the powers that be, and I can't, we can't, somehow reframe it’ (cited in Ritchin, 1989, p. 438).

These two problems – the challenge of visually portraying an activity of global extent, and a desire to address relationships and activities which are largely invisible in the global media – have encouraged several photographers to use the technique of montage in order to portray the oil industry. Montage combines two or more images into one; cutting and splicing in this way can bring things that are usually kept apart into close and often startling proximity. The ‘War Scrapbook’ by Logan at the end of Section 2.2 is an example of a montage. In this way, montage can make the relationships among distant places and people visible in new ways. Logan's aim in using montage in his Oil Lives photographs is precisely to try and reframe how we see the global oil industry.

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