The following sentence is an understatement: Aaron Huey is a photographer.
Aaron is a designer, storyteller, explorer, entrepreneur, activist, author and maker -- and those are only a few of the hats he wears. In addition to his award-winning work for National Geographic, The New Yorker, Smithsonian and The New York Times, among other publications, Aaron is an alumni of the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford and is currently a Global Ambassador of the d.school fellowship program. For seven years, he photographed the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, transitioning from objective observer to activist, which led to his collaboration with street artist Shepard Fairey and the launch of the Honor the Treaties campaign.
Aaron visited the d.school this week to speak with the d.school fellows about his work, the power of visual storytelling and the new developments for those who seek to reach out and have impact. I had a chance to catch up with him afterwards and ask a few questions about his daily process and professional evolution.
The product isn't what it used to be...
During his presentation and discussion with the fellows, Aaron briefly toured his work on Instagram, and the ways in which the platform has given him an outlet for work that otherwise may never have been seen. This, he says, has changed the nature of "the product" -- it's no longer just the polished and selected photographs that make it to formal publication. It's now the sometimes daily output of photographs, such as when he was the first photographer to publish daily through a whole assignment for National Geographic.
Beyond that, it's also the experience others have following his work regularly online. His Instagram account, @argonautphoto has over 330,000 followers (his son's account, @hawkeyehuey, has just over 33,000). Rather than it being merely about the polished product, says Aaron, it's about people feeling invested -- that they are with him in the field on the assignment. That, to Aaron, has more value than the polished piece, which he says, "has no heart to it very often. ... Some of the most interesting product is all process."
On breaking his own rules
Roughly six months ago, Aaron took over the New Yorker photo stream on Instagram (@newyorkerphoto) and published what he would never have posted anywhere else, applying different rules than he would have used in his normal work.
Asked if he ever regretted sharing his work outside of what would otherwise be considered traditional media, Aaron said no. By breaking his own rules, he was able to discover new modes of interaction with audiences and new methods of sharing. For those afraid of affecting their personal brand in testing new methods of sharing ideas or prototypes, Aaron recommends making a sub brand. Let that be a safe space for new experimentation -- one where you get to reset audience expectations and leverage people’s individual choice.
Speaking of lessons on message...
I couldn't help but ask Aaron for one, big insight from his work. When asked, he said he wished he had started making stickers earlier as part of his advocacy work. The medium, he said, has been incredibly powerful -- far more so than the distribution of larger posters. Mounting posters in public spaces is a much riskier endeavor than popping a sticker the back of a street sign or a fence pole. T-shirts are also a much easier point of entry for people who seek to help spread a message. Every t-shirt, after all, is a billboard.
Even if the only person to see the sticker is the person peeling it off of a wall, “it’s still one person who had to process that message.”
“It’s all just a never-ending prototype ... make evolve, make evolve, make evolve.”
Aaron originally studied sculpture, but discovered there was less opportunity to iterate on his work. So, he switched to printmaking, which allowed him to quickly make make monotypes and one-off originals, evolving concepts much faster. He could also pause at a point to see what he had learned over the course of creating numerous iterations. His advice for the fellows for the coming year? "Everything is a sketch. Just keep making. Every day if possible." Make a new t-shirt every week and wear it -- perhaps even once a day.
Engage in a daily practice of making and share your work.
People don’t want to show process, says Aaron, because they are afraid of judgment of that process. “You take the formality out of it, and that just opens it up."