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The Activist: Aaron Huey

There’s art and there’s activism, and where the two overlap is propaganda. The word feels sinister—but not when it’s wielded by the good guys.

When Aaron Huey first visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 2006, his intent was to document the poorest community in all of North America. Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala and Lakota nations of Native Americans, as well as the birthplace of the American Indian Movement and the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Over the next seven years, Huey made countless trips to the reservation from Seattle, and what began as a simple photojournalism project became something far more personal.

“I stumbled into something incredibly sacred and I didn’t see it immediately but I think it was happening the whole time,” Huey says. “I tried giving up on this project so many times and it kept changing and evolving until it became what it’s supposed to be.”

The first iteration: Huey’s 2010 Ted Talk, “America’s Native Prisoners of War,” viewed almost 900,000 times. Then a partnership with Shepard Fairey to develop Honor the Treaties, a nonprofit campaign in which Fairey transformed Huey’s photos into striking street art and powerful sloganeering, which later became a wholly Native-run granting organization. In 2012, National Geographic published an in-depth cover story about Pine Ridge shot by Huey. Last year, Huey released Mitakuye Oyasin, a collection of his most powerful photos of Pine Ridge and a tome of immense gravity, both literal and psychic.

“There’s spiritual warfare happening there,” he says. “The medicine circles, the Sun Dance circles, the family groups that are healthy and using the language and participating in ceremony—they are the light, and they’re growing. But they’re up against an incredible darkness, borne out of our history.”

Over the years, Huey has founded an artist commune in New Mexico, walked across America with his dog, photographed opium growers in Afghanistan for The New Yorker and hitchhiked through Russia for National Geographic. He has two upcoming features for the magazine: one 14 years in the making about the Georgian Republic, which comes out sometime this year, and another about an indigenous community in the Himalayas, slated for 2014 or 2015.

Last summer Huey returned to Seattle from a year at Stanford University as a Knight Fellow, where he worked alongside journalists from around the world to innovate their field. For part of the year he collaborated with a programmer to develop the National Geographic Storytelling Project, which hosts 200-some personal stories and photographs from Pine Ridge residents. Other work focused on reconfiguring American history curricula for public schools and a wholesale adjustment of the commenting format across the Internet.

“I spent that whole year building a tool kit in how to fuck shit up in big systems,” he says. “I already got into all the magazines I wanted and made all these connections. How do I now start to affect change within systems from the inside? I’m not satisfied with the restrictions of print media. 
I want more.”

Age 38
Hometown Worland, Wyo.
Greatest inspiration Disruptors
Achilles’ heel 
Hope/fear/ego/attachment
Current obsession Art as a weapon #WAGEPEACE

Photo by Mike Hipple

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