This Week In Photography Books – Aaron Huey

by Jonathan Blaustein

My mother was sitting in her home, recently, minding her own business. Suddenly, she heard a loud thump, and was shaken and concerned. (Obviously.)

Mom looked out the window and saw a majestic, brown and gray raptor. It was lying on the ground, just outside. As she peeked, its last breath escaped into the atmosphere. It was beautiful, she thought. So beautiful.

Later in the day, she invited me over to see it. I arrived, and realized I was looking at a Peregrine Falcon, meant to be the fastest creature known to man. It was perfectly still, lying on the brown dirt, but flies and ants were crawling on the corpse, preparing for a large meal.

“What should we do with it,” my Mom asked?

A fair question.

Immediately, I thought of our good family friend, a Native American artist, who lived less than a mile away on the Taos Pueblo. After a brief call, she agreed to take the bird, honor its spirit, and make sure the feathers were harvested properly to be used in ceremonial attire. Problem solved.

I roughly shoveled our dead, new friend into a garbage bag, and entrusted it to my almost-six-year-old son. He was entranced, holding it carefully, and kept saying, “I like it so much. I like it so much.” He wanted to keep it, so we discussed the taxidermy process, and my belief that the bird’s soul would be sad, trapped on a shelf until we moved or died.

We delivered the cargo in short order, and were promised it would be treated with respect. My son asked for the talons, as it was clear the Falcon was now his spirit animal. (Mine used to be a coyote, then an eagle, but now it’s a snake.) Needless to say, as crazy as the two previous sentences might sound to you, out here, they’re commonplace concepts.

Our collective fascination with the religion and culture of Native America will never abate. It is a permanent fixture in global consciousness, one that enables us all to focus on the majesty that remains in a set of communities that have been ravaged beyond belief. Our collective shame, so much less pleasurable a sensation, gets buried under our obsession with magic and mystery.

Whether or not you forever brand me as a new-age hipster, I’m speaking the truth. Having been around Native American communities since I was a teen, and written my first essay excoriating US policy as a freshman in high school, I speak with confidence. The vestiges of conquest have yet to lift from the broad shoulders of Native America, and the resulting alcoholism, drug and sexual abuse, and internecine violence are max-level-tragic.

I wish things were different. Would that I could make it all better. Would that anyone could. As photographers, image makers, and media manipulators, it’s hard to imagine anyone capturing that spirit of desperation, misery, beauty, and cultural pride. Even if it could be done, would it make a difference? In an age of infinite distraction, if a tree of truth falls on a plain, will anyone be there to listen?

Fortunately, this is not a thought-experiment. Aaron Huey has put in the requisite time, and spent years among the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota. You might have heard of the Pine Ridge reservation before, but you’ve never seen it like this.

The project, which has received much acclaim, is now in book form, called “Mitakuye Oyasin,” published by Radius. Like last week’s offering, this one speaks for itself. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Mr. Huey’s work on the Internet, and admired from a far. But now, I’m officially blown away.

The photographs contained within are supremely excellent, and drip with tension and emotion. It’s a big, well-crafted book, and there are many photos, (and a few inserts,) so I’ll only be able to share a small sample, unfortunately. You’ll have to buy it to get the full impact.

With my eyes closed, I can see a little girl bathing in the filthy kitchen sink, surrounded by dirty dishes, a boy playing atop a trash pile, pockmarked faces and swollen noses, and another boy, leaning out his window, talking to a friend on horseback. There was a graffiti tag that said “All my heroes killed cowboys,” or something like that. I recall a cavalcade of people carrying a fallen tree, a masked gunman, a child pressed against the rear window of an overstuffed car, and a bison in someone’s back-yard.

I’m sure I come off as an ethnocentric American, at times. (I do love this country, though I live in a spot that is far from typical.) Love it or hate it, the fact remains that this continent was stolen, and most of its inhabitants were killed. We cannot change this, so we choose to forget.

The depth of poverty experienced on many, if not all, Native American reservations in this country is a national disgrace. Can it be improved? Is there any hope at all? I don’t know.

I can tell you that if you want to see for yourself what an in-depth reality looks like, this is the book for you. That Mr. Huey is a Caucasian-American has no bearing on this story. He may have a spirit animal, as I do, or he might believe that such babble, out of the mouth of a gringo, is disrespectful and bourgeois. I have no way of knowing.

But I have come to see this weekly column as an opportunity to shine light on the best work out there. Some weeks I’m funny, and some weeks I’m not. Today, I’m just doing whatever I can, small as the gesture might be, to claw back some of our collective ignorance. No matter what you’re doing today, or how pitiful your paycheck has become, there are people out there in far worse shape than you are. And they were here first.

Bottom Line: A brilliant book that honors a culture, and exposes our national disgrace

To Purchase “Mitakuye Oyasin” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 12 Comments On This Article.

  1. Simply heart-breaking. I’m not sure I could even look at this whole book because it might be too truthful to handle, sadly.

  2. Remarkable work from a remarkable man and photographer. Not only do we choose to forget the plight of Native American peoples, we actively choose to deny- deny the very fact that every square inch of this land we call home was stolen at the point of a (much used) gun. It doesn’t fit our idealized vision of how we choose to see ourselves.

    Mr. Huey is not in the business of romanticizing current day reality, he shows it warts and all. He also realizes that current day realities did not emerge from a vacuum, there is history that lead to this present day tragedy, and history and tradition that can help transform it.

    It’s always inspiring to see someone who gives back, someone who makes a commitment to use his or her work (their subject’s images) for the betterment of the community- instead of repeating a sad history, and once again taking whatever is left.

  3. Aaron Huey’s work is absolutely impeccable, his stories he tells and his moments he captures are so realistic it makes the viewer feel they are part of something. It also inspires a sort of “call to arms” when you see the neglect and abandonment. It makes me want to be a better photographer/storyteller.

    His work reminds me of a quote by the late great Eddie Adams: “If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart, that’s a good picture.”

    How true.

  4. Heavy … very hard to look at many of these. America should be ashamed, and can do much more to change this mess. This work should be seen by every member of Congress and state legislatures. The percentage of the national budget allocated to BIA is a pittance.

  5. powerful prose, images and feelings…we cannot and must not turn our back on the native population in this country, we did indeed, steal from them. many thanks for exposing such painful truths.

  6. I love this post and felt every thing you said right up to the end. My heart breaks for these people. When someone grows up in poverty with a set of beliefs about their existence, how do they know that there is something better out there? The last sentence left me feeling sad and slightly hurt. I do believe many of the things that have happened in the formation of what we now know as America were horrifying and shameful. It is important to know our past so we can learn from it. As a Caucasian woman, I have always felt slightly resentful at comments like the one I am referring to, like I am supposed to feel personal shame at things done by people I’ve never met because of the color of my skin. It is my personal belief and hope that we can all have the desire to raise up and encourage one another to better ourselves and our world. This is a beautiful project you have shared with us and I love that this person has taken such time and care to raise awareness. Continued oppression is unacceptable, but the people responsible for our past are no longer alive to be held accountable. We can only work with what we have now. I hope I have not offended anyone with what I’ve said. It was intended with love. Peace and blessings.

  7. An unbelievable succession of images, this is really powerful story-telling by a guy with sublime technique. There’s so much commitment and trust in the best of these photographs and that’s a real testament to Aaron Huey.

  8. If you haven’t seen his TED talk about this work, it is particularly powerful. Huey is a warrior with a camera who has something to say, says it well, and doesn’t give a shit if you don’t like it. He cares deeply. I sincerely hope his success, his work for the big name, does not strip his soil or coopt his convictions.

  9. If you haven’t seen his TED talk about this work, it is particularly powerful. Huey is a warrior with a camera who has something to say, says it well, and doesn’t give a shit if you don’t like it. He cares deeply. I sincerely hope his success, his work for the big name, does not strip his soul or coopt his convictions.