As I stood overlooking the vast, somewhat desolate valley below, refrains from Mission Impossible rang in my mind: “If you should choose to accept this assignment, you’ll be capturing the largest construction project in the country at the time.”
The project was to build a water reservoir to hold enough water to supply Southern California from Santa Barbara on the north to San Diego on the south. The Metropolitan Water District/Los Angeles had engineered the Diamond Valley Reservoir in Hemet, California, and Parsons Engineering would be managing construction, damming both ends of two mountain ranges and one smaller dam.
I couldn’t help listening to my imaginary tape: “....If you fail to complete your mission, all knowledge of you will be disavowed. This tape will self-destruct in 30 seconds.”
Back to reality. Chin up, camera to the ready, I proceeded to the valley floor. Everywhere I looked was construction equipment: earth movers, haulers, cranes, rock crushers, cats, loaders, water trucks, graders. (I learned the lingo as time went by.) There were women operators controlling huge, powerful equipment. Early on in my career, I decided to capture the beauty around us. Here I was a tiny bit dubious about the “beauty” aspect, but I knew this would be a unique experience.
Several staff photographers worked full time on this project. To my knowledge, I was the only woman photographer hired. If you’re looking for this type of work, here are some tips to guide you:
1. How to get the assignment. Personal contacts with businesses, especially city and government agencies, work best. Go to council meetings, get to know the movers and shakers, read the newspaper, introduce yourself to construction contractors. Learn something about the construction before seeking the assignment, and check out the insurance requirements. Your compensation may not cover the excessive cost of liability insurance premiums. I didn’t find it helpful to register as a “woman-owned business.” It only led to requests to develop hundreds of rolls of film.
2. The assignment. Find out your client’s expectations: does he want a record of the construction, a new perspective, flattering images? Get a schedule of planned work and equipment that will be in use. Check out the weather. Rain is not all bad; when it stops, the air is clean, rainbows are common, quiet puddles capture reflections.
3. Planning. Is the site close enough to drive every day? If not, you should be compensated to stay at an area hotel. Consider the economic factors, isolation of the project, proximity of medical facilities, restaurants, etc. Who will be directing you? Determine the use and expectations of your work right away. Do they want film, digital, prints, all of these? Do you mail or send the images electronically?
What is the payment schedule? Whom do you contact if your payment doesn’t show up? Periodically confirm that the person expecting performance on your part has actually received your work.
4. Your physical condition. Terrain can be rocky, slippery, soggy, and can include heights and shaky catwalks. Find out if the area will be hot, cold, rainy, windy?
Note: Huge equipment cannot stop on a dime. You will look like a peanut to the operator, assuming you can be seen at all! Be on the lookout and be aware every moment of what’s going on around you, or headed in your direction. Be prepared to move quickly. Don’t stand on top of a tower during a lightning storm!
5. Have a guide. Don’t wander around the construction site alone. In my case, “thank you” Scott, the patient, full-time lead photographer, kept a sharp eye on me, saved me a lot of useless wandering around, and took me to the action sites. To minimize dust, the roads were constantly being sprayed by water trucks. On one occasion, while I was engrossed in taking some shots, a hauler coming down a steep, wet grade started to slide toward us. Scott noticed and moved us out of that area very quickly.
6. Safety first. Proceed with CAUTION. Ask if blasting will be going on! Your camera components can set off the charge if you take a shot before the area has been cleared. Turn off your cell phone, too. When you move to another area, check again for blasting before you shoot. Your guide won’t let you get close enough to the blast site to be in danger, but always use caution.
A hard hat, which you must wear, is worn backward to keep it from interfering with your camera. You also have to wear a brilliant orange vest. I suggest getting your own hat and vest as well as heavy-duty, comfortable boots with good traction. If you’re taking medicine or have a medical condition, carry ID, your doctor’s name and phone number, and an emergency number. If the location is remote, bring your own food and water.