behind the news

National Geographic launches a ‘ballsy’ online project

A community storytelling venture hopes to supplement good journalism
July 24, 2012

When Aaron Huey started photographing the lives of Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he did not imagine he would still be working with the residents he met there seven years later.

Now, Huey is coordinating a storytelling project partnership between National Geographic and Cowbird, an interactive storytelling website, to provide a forum for residents of Pine Ridge to tell their own stories in photographs, audio, and words directly to readers. According to Huey, this might be the first time a national magazine has agreed to host unedited, user-generated content directly on its website. In Huey’s words, that’s a “ballsy” move for a legacy publication.

“It has benefits to all parties involved,” Huey told CJR. “There is so much in these communities that you cannot cover using traditional media outlets. I have been frustrated for a long time about my inability to tell the whole story.”

Huey first visited the Lakota tribe at Pine Ridge as part of a wider freelance series he was planning about poverty in the US. He has since had photos from the reservation published in Details magazine, The Fader, Harper’s, and The New York Times’s “Lens Blog.” More of his photos from Pine Ridge will run with a feature article by Alexandra Fuller in the August issue of National Geographic and online, where the coverage is supplemented by the Cowbird partnership.

Huey said he spent years building up trust with with residents of the Pine Ridge. In the Lakota community, unemployment is around 70 percent and life expectancy is in the late forties. While the community’s struggle with alcoholism and drugs have been well documented in the media, Huey did not want to be another “drive-by photographer,” he said. He listened to the residents’ complaints when they didn’t like how they were being portrayed. He remembers the elderly woman who told him he should be ashamed of himself, and the sacks of mail from school children asking him to tell their happy stories.

“I was never under any impression that I wasn’t making a dark portrait,” Huey said of his early work. “Now in the National Geographic piece, it becomes important to balance that out. It’s not meant to threaten good journalism, but supplement it.”

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While Cowbird could provide similar opportunities for other long-term, community-led journalism projects, there are some limitations. First, the process of building up trust and investing time in the community is labor-intensive for journalists at a time when competition for work is high and few have the luxury of years to invest.

Money is also an issue. Huey received a Knight Fellowship to study at Stanford and a grant from the John and James L. Knight Foundation, giving him the time he needed to take a step back from his career, ask what more he could do for the subjects of his photographs, and then formulate a plan to help them speak for themselves. Without the financial support from the fellowship, he might not have had that chance, he said.

Finally, many of the communities that could benefit most from a storytelling partnership are offline, without the technology and education needed to submit their stories to Cowbird. Huey is running workshops in senior citizen homes and in schools to encourage involvement in his project. Cowbird is also working to make its interface as accessible as possible, including accepting submissions via email.

So far, National Geographic has hosted around 130 stories, and Huey says the response has been positive. “I have been getting notes of thanks daily by a people who have always felt betrayed by the media,” he told CJR. “The chance to be heard has moved them very much.”

Eventually, Huey hopes to step back from the project and let it run itself. “We can’t look at a project like this with an editor’s eyes,” Huey said. “This is a new way of looking at storytelling. It adds layers.”

Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.