National Geographic’s Aaron Huey on Digital Collaboration and Community Storytelling

The latest cover of National Geographic features the story of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota. Alexandra Fuller’s well-written piece of long form journalism plus Aaron Huey’s series of striking photographs is standard fare in the magazine by now, but this cover story included a new form of storytelling. Huey, who has spent the past seven years documenting and befriending the Lakota teamed up with Jonathan Harris, creator of Cowbird, to launch the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project. Cowbird is a storytelling platform focused on personal narratives rather than quick status updates, and the collaboration is an attempt to give the people of Pine Ridge a chance to tell their own stories. Users can use photos, audio and text on one seamless platform that attempts to build a library of human experiences.

Huey talked to 10,000 Words about the collaboration, which was made possible in part by the Knight Journalism Fellowship and the John and James L. Knight Foundation. He first started covering the community when he was doing a larger survey on poverty—Pine Ridge was one of the poorest counties in the nation. Though he didn’t know much about the history of the reservation at the time, he quickly became drawn into its story and evolution, eventually becoming an advocate for the community.

MZ: Why did you and Jonathan Harris decide to collaborate on this story? Did you feel that the traditional modes of journalism weren’t sufficient?

AH: I was lucky enough to spend last year at Stanford University as a Knight Journalism Fellow, which allowed me to step way back from my daily life as a photographer to look at bigger trends and possibilities in journalism, and where I wanted to be in that picture. I have been dissatisfied for quite some time with the limitations of traditional journalism in both how Pine Ridge could be covered, but also in what I knew to be the flaw of all journalism in the eyes of the journalistic “subject”—that it’s someone else telling YOUR story. I had been interviewed enough times for various projects and adventures to know that what I saw printed rarely resembled how I felt or what I wanted people to hear. There is great value in having an outsider tell the story of a people or community, and put the pieces they find into a beautiful, objective narrative. But returning for many years to Pine Ridge meant that I had to look back into the eyes of the same people again and again after they had seen themselves on websites or in the pages of magazines, and they all wanted to know why I couldn’t tell more of the story. They wanted to know why it all had to be about poverty and violence and alcohol. They wanted to know why it couldn’t be about success stories and good students and sober families. The truth is that I knew that those stories would not only fail to fit in the shrinking page counts of magazines, but would also not appeal to editors.  Knowing that they didn’t make strong narratives for our publications didn’t stop me from wanting to share them.

Jonathan and I were fast friends; he is an amazing artist who I usually refer to in conversation as a “web super-genius.” I found Jonathan while at Stanford after attempting, and failing, to design my own way for communities to tell stories that could be attached to traditional features. When I saw Cowbird, I dropped everything and knew it was the perfect partnership. I didn’t need to spend all year making a poorer version of what Jonathan had already built over many years of effort.  That was one of the most important things I learned at Stanford; that we don’t have to work alone when a collaboration can accelerate and expand a project into existence so quickly. Jonathan had created an incredible tool that fit most of my needs and I was determined to work with him to help people on Pine Ridge tell their stories, even if I couldn’t get National Geographic on board. Luckily, National Geographic agreed and I think the result is about as inclusive of a community story as I have ever seen, and growing larger every day.

MZ: Cowbird is a personal medium focused on more subjective storytelling. How do you think journalists/news organizations can benefit from such a platform?

AH: I know that the stories in the collection are not objective; they are not journalism. They are stories, songs, blessings, rants and monologues meant to supplement a great piece of journalism. Nothing can touch the quality of Alexandra Fuller’s writing; she’s as good as they get.  But adding more layers to her story with this completely raw, online collection does so many things to fill in the gaps. There are gaps because it is not our story to tell, it is theirs. There are only so many pages we can have and so many words that can be edited and fact checked in a story with finite edges, it takes a lot of money to verify those words and pictures and give them the approval stamp. Those parts that are neatly contained become the factual journalistic stories we read every day in our periodicals. But adding a living story component like this embedded collection means that we can stop editing and just let the stories be stories, let the songs be songs and let them sing for the people. This community-generated portrait of Reservation life is such a rich and textured thing that I find myself wanting to compare it to songs or poetry more than to journalism.

That said I think there are quite concrete reasons for publications/organizations to add this digital sidecar to feature stories that focus on communities. The story collection grows over time and will draw readers back to the site when they would have normally moved on. More clicks usually means more money in the new world order of value calculated by CPMs. Beyond return visits to a website for the magazine, it is also just the right thing to do.

A transformed relationship between those formerly known as “subjects” and the publications that shape our worldview will open a new transparency and enable real dialogue. Through this living interface, the stories will grow over time, bringing insight to the community and sustained traffic to the media site. Instead of a feature having two or three people’s stories represented, it will host hundreds of stories and offer a deep-dive into that community. More points of view, more pageviews, more discussion and hopefully more understanding. Everyone wins.

MZ: Such a personal approach also mirrors your own evolution in covering Pine Ridge. Can you tell me about the point when you decided to become an advocate? Why did you make this decision when you did?

AH: There were many points along this road where I questioned myself and where this was all headed. One big moment was after the NYT Lensblog published my work three years ago. Two events happened in the year after that story. One was that I received two large manila envelopes full of letters from high school students. Many asked me why I couldn’t show families like theirs—sober, normal and mostly ok. One of these letters from a young woman named Charlie Cuny opens the National Geographic Community Storytelling project page.

As a photojournalist, I’d always struggled with how to share the incredibly complex story of this community. I’ve never been able to tell all the stories that I want to tell on Pine Ridge, and I’ve come to realize that even if I could, I can’t tell them the way the people want them told.

That same year, a woman named Ramona White Plume stopped me and told me she was “disappointed in me.” She had seen my photos on the NYT website and wanted to know what the point of all this was. I had to stop and ask myself the same thing. I think those voices started to accumulate in my mind and the more I researched the history the more I started to see the bigger picture of what had created the darkness I was documenting. I was covering a Prisoner of War camp. I was documenting the last chapters of a genocide.

Until I walked on stage to do my TED talk, I had not taken on any kind of role as an advocate. But when I was preparing my talk for that stage, when I saw the history of the Lakota laid out so clearly, it was obvious to me that the only way the talk could end was with the words: “The Black Hills are not for sale, it’s not your business what they do with them.”

I had been hearing about the treaties and the treaty violations for years and never fully absorbed the importance of it all. Once I did there was no turning back. I started to see the contemporary resistance movements and I started to see the spirit of Crazy Horse alive in the people and it completely changed my vision.  I started to see things completely differently.

I also realized that I could develop projects outside the pages of magazines that would help them share the message they really wanted the world to hear, the message was: “Honor the Treaties.” I gave them the tools they needed through my TED talk and a street art campaign that I later started with Shepard Fairey. Our most recent work for the Sioux just went public last week. We will be working with Daryl Hannah to get thousands of these posters pasted across the country and into the hands of groups fighting for Treaty rights.

Pine Ridge is a rare situation for me because I oscillate between journalist and advocate. When I am working for National Geographic I am purely a journalist, and I have had to document situations that do not make my friends on Pine Ridge happy. My job on assignments like that is to be objective, and I have had to battle through some tough times with the families who appear in those darker images. In telling the bigger story, some individuals end up being singled out as the example of oppression.

MZ: Has this project changed your relationship with the people of Pine Ridge? What about the publication-subject relationship?

AH: I think the publication-subject relationship has taken a huge leap into the future with this project. What National Geographic did was incredibly brave. Allowing me to co-launch this stream of unedited content with a cover story on their website is an unprecedented step for a publication on this scale. The people of Pine Ridge have been incredibly appreciative in phone calls and messages to me. For the first time I think they really feel heard. I think this starts to make up for all the superficial “drive by” journalism that has been happening on the Reservation, it’s good for all of journalism when a publication does the right thing and listens to the community.

Aaron Huey is a photojournalist who works primarily for the National Geographic magazines, for which he has shot over 20 features.  Aaron is widely known for his 3,349-mile solo walk across America (with his dog Cosmo) in 2002, which lasted 154 days.  Huey is also a Contributing Editor at Harper’s Magazine, a 2012 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and a lecturer at  Find more of his work at:

Photo Credit: Jill Fannon