Aaron Huey is a National Geographic photographer, a Stanford Media Designer and Executive Director of the Amplifier Foundation. As a photographer, Huey has created over 30 stories for the National Geographic magazines and has been at the forefront of social media storytelling for the brand.
About His Presentation
National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey decided the first big solo trip he wanted to take his 4-year-old son on was into the desert to camp with hobos in a blanket fort. The blanket fort blew away that night but luckily Aaron had bought his son Hawkeye his first camera, an analog Fuji Instax. The two started an adventure the next day traveling together around the American West making photographs, meeting strangers, chasing light and learning how to see. They climbed Salvation Mountain, went into the chutes at the Cody Night Rodeo, visited the markets of the Navajo Nation, and cruised the Las Vegas strip. Between the ages of 4 and 7, Hawkeye took around two thousand instant photos that resulted in a book, assignments for Vogue and National Geographic, a listing on Rolling Stone’s top 100 Instagram accounts of all time (225k followers), and an endless string of adventures with Dad.
Welcome to MULTIPLICITY. Tell us about your presentation.
I am talking about the journey I’ve taken with Hawkeye Huey, my son. It started when he was four years old and he’s now just turned seven.
What sparked the project?
It wasn’t originally meant to be a photo project. We were going to go build blanket forts in the desert near the Salton Sea by this hobo encampment. It was going to be our first big adventure together as father and son, away from Mom. My wife needed a break, so I took Hawkeye away into the desert. On the way, I thought it would be fun for him to have a camera, but I knew for sure I didn’t want him to have a digital camera. I once handed him an iPhone and watched him take 150 pictures of nothing in 15 seconds, so I knew I wanted him to have an analog camera, like the Polaroids I had used.
“I once handed him an iPhone and watched him take 150 pictures of nothing in 15 seconds. I knew I wanted him to have an analog camera, like the Polaroids I had used.”
And then what happened?
We got there and built our blanket forts, but they blew away in a huge dust storm, so we just wandered around my favourite places, like Salvation Mountain and Slab City. And the very first photo he ever took, I took a picture of him making it. He was standing on top of Salvation Mountain. I have access to the National Geographic Instagram account, and at the time we were sharing a lot more from our personal lives, if it was related to photographic moments. I put a picture of him on the account and the comment section went totally crazy wanting to know what was coming out of his camera.
And then it took off?
I couldn’t share his photos on the Nat Geo account, or through mine, so we started an account in his name so we could share the experience. And the next couple days we were going around meeting travelers, and drop-outs and people living in tents, and put a bunch of those photos on Instagram. Within a week or two he had thousands and thousands of followers, and we had people calling us to see if he wanted to work on projects. And now he’s got a quarter of a million followers.
That’s a far cry from your idea of keeping it analog.
Yeah, but he doesn’t interact at all with any of it. He doesn’t see any of that. That’s just an extension of my world. I protect him from all that stuff, and he just gets to do the fun analog thing.
What is it about the instant, social and self-publishing medium that you feel is so powerful?
These days, Instagram and social platforms have bigger audiences than any paper magazine; they get fed by every magazine in the world. They’re consolidating all this content, and are now the biggest magazine. Social media is its own magazine, and I’m my own magazine now.
Where is digital social story telling headed?
I think there’s going to be so much more live coverage—more direct and live in the moment.
What makes a good social story?
Social story telling is hard. I don’t do a lot of it, but it’s good for the extras. I don’t think the mega National Geographic story that goes on over the course of a year can be told through social. Social adds layers. I don’t count on it ever being the whole story, but sometimes it makes sense. Like when my friend Cory Richards from National Geographic went up Everest and Snapchatted the whole thing. That was a totally appropriate story to do purely live, because it’s about one or two people’s human experiences. You don’t need to do research on that; it’s just happening to you. It’s a very different thing when you’re talking about a community, and have to do it right to represent those communities. But social allows us to tell the stories that can’t make it into the magazine. If I’m telling a story about a community that’s going to define them for the next 20 years, I always struggle that it’s only going to be 20 photos, and one writer’s words. It’s important to keep doing stories like that, but that’s not the whole truth. We need more layers than that. Individual people’s stories that I think are really important often won’t make it into the magazine, but I can put it out there through social, and with the audience’s being what they are now, like 75 million followers, my one Instagram post about a person and their life that day—that’s a magazine.
“Social adds layers. If I’m telling a story about a community that’s going to define them for the next 20 years, I always struggle that it’s only going to be 20 photos, and one writer’s words. Social allows us to tell the stories that can’t make it into the magazine.”
How attracted you to photography?
For me, all my schooling was in painting and printmaking and sculpture. And toward the end of university, I was just kind of a backpacker, traveling around Asia rock climbing. I went on some great climbing trips, and I bought a camera and some slide film. It all started like it does with a lot of people, just wandering the earth with a camera. But I stumbled into some pretty astonishing places along the Kurdish-Syria border, and went into Iran and stumbled into the 20th anniversary of the hostage crisis there, and then into the big earthquake in Istanbul that killed like 40,000 people. On one trip, I stumbled into really remote valleys in the Caucasus Mountains that had never really been documented. This was before there was a guidebook for every place on earth.
That’s some pretty impressive stumbling.
It was that spot in the Caucasus Mountains that was the really big hook. I realized it was a place I really wanted to go back to, and the first time I did go back to a place to make more photos. By the end of the second trip, I realized I wanted to go back a third time to try to make a story. I stayed with this family in this really remote valley in the Georgian Republic. It became this huge body of work that I really still love. And National Geographic just sent me back 15 years later to document the same family. For me photography was just the most portable art. I was making art in a lot of forms in University, but photography was the one I could travel with.
Was there ever a time you thought, maybe I shouldn’t be involving a 5-year-old in this social media circus?
We’re a pretty bombastic family, so I share everything. It’s just who we are, and I feel that Hawkeye is pretty safe in it. We say no to all the things we don’t feel right about, or that would put any pressure on him. We’ve said no to all the live TV shows, Ellen DeGeneres and all the things we don’t think we’d have control over.
How do you keep to your original vision?
I treat it like those first trips, Hawkeye and I having an adventure. I don’t want Hawkeye to be the centre of attention on his feed, because he’s just a kid; he’s not a prodigy. He’s just a regular kid that I spent a lot of time with, with a good aesthetic eye that went out and took thousands of photos over a few years. We edited it with a good eye, and were able to come up with something pretty interesting. It’s something a lot of parents can replicate, but most parents don’t take creating with their children to this level. How many parents take a 19-day road trip with the whole focus their 4- or 5-year-old child taking pictures? I laugh sometimes, because it’s not like he struck out on his own to pursue this great photography career. He just travels and hangs out with his dad.
“Having Hawkeye go out with a camera has been a great introduction to the word for him. It’s taught him how to meet new people, how to see other people’s lives, to be brave, and how to interact with new and uncomfortable circumstances in this world.”
Why is it important for us to involve the youth in our adventures?
Having Hawkeye go out with a camera has been a great introduction to the word for him. It’s taught him how to meet new people, how to see other people’s lives, to be brave, and how to interact with new and uncomfortable circumstances in this world. It’s life training; it’s not really about photography. The photography is just the evidence of that.
What were the biggest lessons you learned on this journey with your son?
I learned how to see through a different eye. What he creates is much more loose that what I do. As professional photographers we can get over-contrived in our quest for perfection and our ideas of what a frame is supposed to look like. And I like living through his photographs.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your presentation?
I hope everyone tries some version of this. Because this is not about a prodigy; it’s about the journey of a child, and there are journeys like this any parent can take. This is not some magic thing that’s untouchable; any family can do this, in this form or another. It’s not really about professional photography, or aesthetics; it’s about how you teach your children, and how you interact with them in their creative world
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2017 MULTIPLICITY Presenters
Aaron and Hawkeye Huey