July 24, 2012

Using Cowbird to tell stories

National Geographic launches a ‘ballsy’ online project

A community storytelling venture hopes to supplement good journalism

By Hazel Sheffield
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.”
And: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.
The site itself:

Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project

Comment:  I'm not sure what impact this will have. More than Huey's billboards, I suspect.

If nothing else, it'll inspire the people of Pine Ridge to talk. That alone is a valuable outcome.

For more on Huey's efforts, see Lakota Stories on National Geographic Website and My "Black Hills" Billboard.

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