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.