After six years struggling to photograph life on the Pine Ridge reservation, Aaron Huey now hopes he can help change it for the better.
It's a pervasive question for any documentary photographer. And Huey doesn't have an easy answer.
"From the very beginning when I came here I told you that I wanted to share the story of your life with the world, to be a witness to what's happening here," Huey reminded an elder who had adopted him into her family, when she asked him to remove his Pine Ridge images from the Internet. "You're part of that, and I can't take that back. It's what I saw and it's what people need to know."
An Uneasy Fix
As his Pine Ridge project has developed, Huey‚s perception of his role in it has evolved. Although he takes care to avoid bias and judgement in his images, he's begun to take more responsibility for the text accompanying his pictures. "As far as choosing a side, that has to happen through words," Huey says. "My pictures paired with the wrong words are just as exploitative as the stories I condemn."
In May 2010, Huey got up on stage at the University of Denver and unequivocally chose his side. In his 13-minute talk, which was posted to the TED lecture series online, Huey outlined 186 years of Lakota history, including dozens of broken treaties and the murder of unarmed women and children at Wounded Knee. After repeatedly holding back tears, he closed the talk by calling for the United States to honor its treaties and restore the Black Hills to the Lakota.
The speech touched a nerve, catching fire online, and suddenly thousands of people were turning to Huey and asking, "How can we help?" Huey is happy he's called their attention to Pine Ridge, but as he says in his talk: "The suffering of indigenous people is not a simple problem to fix. The 'fix' may be much more difficult for the dominant society than, say, a $50 check, or a church trip to paint some graffiti-covered houses, or a suburban family donating a box of clothes they don't even want anymore."
With the money he is working to raise through Emphas.is, Huey plans to produce posters and billboards based on his photos, working with Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena (an activist and Fairey protege).
"I‚m doing the same things magazines are doing in raising awareness, I just hope to give it more depth and do it with brutal honesty," Huey explains. "I'm going to be more blunt than mainstream media can be, using text written by Lakota non-profits that includes loaded language like Egenocide‚ and Eprisoner of war camps‚ to describe the reservation system."
Huey also hopes to push people beyond indignation into action. All publicity materials will point to a Website that provides resources for researching indigenous issues and that will connect people to grassroots Native organizations.
"This is not a simple issue: I can't just deliver a black and white story to the audience," Huey says. "Ultimately my time at Pine Ridge produced a lot of very dark and intimate images, photos that show a world of suffering and neglect very few have been able to see. What people do with that new awareness of our legacy is up to them."
Donations to the Pine Project end May 5. You can view Huey’s and many other worthy projects’ pages at Emphas.is. You can also check out more of Aaron'w work at AaronHuey.com.
Photo: Aaron Huey