Starlings on Fire

{2014 - 2016}

30th July 2016

 “It tests you physically, mentally and emotionally. Every single corner of your psyche gets seriously rinsed out here…”


11th November 2013 – 12th August 2014

Being strapped to a seat inside a metal cylinder and then submerged in a large, deep pool of tepid water, to perform helicopter safety and escape drills, was the easy part. Establishing a way of getting onto an offshore installation in the North Sea to work, let alone undertake a photography project, was definitely going to be the hard part.

In late 2013, a sequence of photography projects and wild notions had brought me to an Offshore Survival Centre in Aberdeen where I undertook the Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training course – the minimum requirement for anyone wanting to work offshore in the Oil and Gas Industry. Completing the course didn’t guarantee anything, other than a fairly deep hole in my pockets.

For the following 10 months, while continuing my work as a photographer, I contacted all the Recruitment Agencies, Drilling Contractors and Facilities Companies based in Aberdeen, trying to find a route into the offshore world. I had to be very resourceful. Photography is not a particularly transferable skill into the Oil and Gas Industry.

I got lucky, and in August 2014 I started my first, 2-week trip offshore. It was on the Janice Alpha Platform, situated in the central North Sea, approximately 175 miles south east of Aberdeen.

I remember my first helicopter flight. I was simultaneously excited and anxious. It was the antithesis of the life as a photographer I had known up to that point. Exactly what I was looking for. As we approached the production platform, I looked out of the window and witnessed this vibrant, bright orange gas flare and what appeared to me to be a chaotic, tangled web of piping floating in the sea. It seemed surreal, alien and almost post-apocalyptic. My life offshore was about to begin.


The genesis of ‘Starlings On Fire’ came in the form of two projects that I was working on simultaneously during 2013, but which were conceived independently of each other. These projects formed part of my ongoing interest in post-industrial landscapes. There was an overarching dystopian nature to both projects.

I had been researching archival images that had the potential to be physically projected back into some of the decayed ‘monolithic’ environments that I had been shooting in. I kept returning to an image I have which dates back to the early 1900s. It depicts two diving men sitting opposite each other, outside a telescopic gasholder, presumably about to commence interior test work on the holder. I find the image truly captivating. It haunts me. I know nothing about the two men or the photographer who took the picture.

I started to examine the cache of albums that accompanied this image. They document the construction of the Granton Gas Works in Edinburgh. I wondered about the lives of the workers depicted in these photographs, posing with a steely, emotionless gaze towards the camera, dwarfed by the construction of huge buildings and machinery that surrounded them. I was lost in the notion of living during that time – documenting the construction of this vast world. I started to consider the idea of producing a body of work now, which could act as a kind of ‘time capsule’ and be something looked back through in 20 or 30 years time. I needed an industry that remained relatively unchanged since its beginnings and was somehow cocooned from the social, political and economic pressures exerted on more land based industries.

I was intrigued by the incongruous existence of the offshore Oil and Gas Installation – a collision of industry and nature. I quickly established that the only way I was going to be able to produce a body of photographic work offshore was to try and work out there.

Gas Holder No.1, Granton Gas Works, ca. 1905, Photographer Unknown.

October 2016

I worked for 2 years onboard a Drilling Rig in the North Sea, situated approximately 130 miles east of Aberdeen. After about 5 months working on a 3:3 Rotation (3 weeks on/ 3 weeks off) and having bedded myself in to the demands and culture of offshore life, I was granted permission to start shooting on the rig. Initially, this was restricted to seascapes only. I shot the entire project on 120 film, which aside from what Roger Ballen calls the ‘great alchemy of analogue’, meant that I didn’t have to get a Permit to Work every time I wanted to shoot. This was a good thing. It gave me relative freedom to work around my 12-hour daily shifts and I often worked at night, where shooting opportunities often only presented themselves at 2 or 3am in the morning.

The seascapes were more than just a photographic opportunity however. The entire process became ritualistic and a means of escape, metaphorically speaking. This was my incentive and motivation for getting through an arduous shift or trip. The magic hour (at both ends of the day) became a period of reflective solitude, yet the perpetual humming of the rig always prevented the experience from developing into something more spiritual.

A positive acknowledgement of my seascape work allowed me to extend the scope of the project. I was granted unprecedented access to the entire rig and with the approval of the on-shift driller, I could shoot in and around its fulcrum, the drill floor. I was constantly drawn to this area. Between the driller’s digital control hub, ‘The Dog House’, and the machinery and workings on the drill floor, I often thought it was like entering the combined fictional worlds of H.G.Wells and William Gibson. I was a photographer documenting heavy industry in the late 1800s, but in a strange parallel universe where there had been a sudden spike in technological advancement.

I developed a strong relationship with the core and third party crews onboard, but I had an almost equal interest in the architecture, machinery and layout of the rig. There’s an underlying feeling of isolation, volatility and danger offshore. The confined physical environment can be claustrophobic, the natural elements harsh and brutal. By combining the seascapes and the portraits I wanted to convey these qualities, but maintain a certain level of distance and anonymity between the crew and the viewer, referencing the archival industrial photographs that had inspired me three years earlier.

31st July 2016

“ Do you know where you’ll be redeployed when this contract is up, Don? ”

“ Aye…..the dole queue.”

“Hah, really?!”

“Aye, I’m not fucking kidding. This is the third slump I’ve experienced and it’s definitely the worst. I think the North Sea’s fucked. I don’t think it’ll ever recover…unless we get a good old war… the good times are gone. The way I see it, if this is gonna be my last trip, then I reckon this could be my last time offshore. If there are jobs out here, then the money’ll probably be shite.”

There are many areas within the Oil and Gas Industry that are deeply problematic and controversial. The offshore installation almost acts as a provocative totem for the industry.

When I started this project in August 2014 the price of oil was approximately $110 per barrel and there was much speculation that the industry in the North Sea would continue to thrive for another 30 – 40 years.

By February 2016 the price of oil had slumped to an 11 year low of $28 per barrel. Oil companies, suppliers and contractors started streamlining their operations, which led to many people across the industry losing their jobs. The North Sea was particularly hard hit. Its waters are amongst the most expensive in the world for carrying out Oil and Gas exploration and production. This year the Industry approved less than £1billion to spend on new projects, compared to a typical £8billion per year in the last five years. According to Oil and Gas UK’s Activity Survey, published in February 2016, if the price of oil were to remain at approx. $30 for the remainder of 2016 then nearly half (43%) of all UKCS (UK Continental Shelf) oil fields are likely to be operating at a loss, deterring any further exploration and investment.

The number of Drilling Rigs operating in the North Sea plunged in September to 27, the lowest number since records began in 1982. In the same month, the drilling contract for the Drilling Rig I worked on expired. The vast majority of the crew onboard were served notice of redundancy and the rig was towed into the shipyard, where it remains today.

Decommissioning in the North Sea is being viewed across sections of the industry as being the major investment opportunity of the future.

PIC / October 2016

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