April 26, 2011

Billboards to raise awareness of Indians

Broken Treaties: Aaron Huey’s Pine Ridge Billboard Project

By Phil BickerThe Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Lakota Sioux, is ground zero for Native American Issues. Best known to most Americans as the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, where some 300 men, women and children were slaughtered by US soldiers, today Pine Ridge is one of the poorest counties in America. The life expectancy of men is 47-years–the same as for men in Afghanistan and Somalia. The unemployment levels on the reservation are about 90%. Most people are living on just $3,000 a year.

For the past six years, photographer Aaron Huey has trained his camera on these problems. But, he says, it took him five years to understand what the real story was. “When I first went to Pine Ridge,” says Huey, “the focus was on getting pictures of gangs, superficial violence, drugs and extreme circumstances.” It wasn’t until he was asked to present a TED talk that he pieced together the history–For the first time he saw the reality–how the land was stolen from the Lakota through a series of massacres disguised as battles, and the broken treaties that followed. “It was,” says Huey, “a calculated and systematic destruction of a people.”

To spread the message about the broken treaties–and let people know “where the statistics come from,” says Huey–the photographer has devised an ambitious plan. Collaborating with two artists, Ernesto Yerena and Shepard Fairey, (the latter is best known for his portrait for Obama’s “Hope” campaign), Huey is creating a nationwide billboard campaign. And giving the street artists no-holds-barred access to his work to design it. “I told them they can cut them up,” says Huey, “and put them together, however they want.”

He wants to put these collaborations on billboards, subway platforms and buses. “I want to shift people’s attention to outlets for action,” says Huey explaining that the posters direct potential donors to grass roots Native organizations, as well information on standing treaties between tribes and the US government, and details about broken treaties.
An associated video:

The Black Hills Are Not for Sale:  An Interview with Photographer Aaron Huey

Comment:  Watch the video to see examples of Huey's photographs and a couple of posters made from them.

The posters are nice. I'm not sure a poster will catch many people's attention, but a billboard might. At that size, the art may get the public talking.

Huey seems liberal enough, but his mental journey sounds interesting. At first he was taking photos as an ignorant outsider. He seems to have taken the poverty at face value--which means he thought it was the Indians' fault, I suspect. It took him six years to get the idea that maybe the roots of the problem went deeper. That maybe the legacy of broken treaties, massacres, and concentration-camp living might've had something to do with the poor conditions.

Wow. If it took someone who's supposedly a keen observer that long to figure things out, what hope does the public have? It may take decades for Americans to get the message about the Third World conditions on some reservations.

Which means Native activists have their work cut out for them. They have to stick to their guns for as long as it takes. No single protest or documentary or media campaign will do the trick; it may take dozens or hundreds of such efforts.

For more on the subject, see "Res-Love" = Abuse and Alcoholism and Spirit Level Is Low in US.


none said...

This seems like a great idea and I hope it works. The video isn't working for me so I'll have to check it out later.

none said...

Ok, after watching the video, I'm even more impressed with his work. The images are powerful but I'm not sure I can agree with how he wants to present them. The Obama-izing of posters...ehn. It's just too closely associated with, well, Obama and it seems too soft a touch to make an impact. In this case, I'm in favor of smacking people upside the head and those photos will do just that.

And this is why I don't work in marketing/advertising. HA!

Rob said...

For more on the subject, plus examples of the posterized photos, see:


Aaron Huey:  Life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

After six years struggling to photograph life on the Pine Ridge reservation, Aaron Huey now hopes he can help change it for the better.