New online site lets students tell their stories using photographs

posted on April 2, 2012

Like so many other children across the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Red Cloud students have many compelling stories to tell. But up until now, their audience has been restricted to the limited circle of family, friends, and others with whom they may come into contact. A new online platform, being publicized locally by renowned photojournalist Aaron Huey, aims to change that.

Huey is encouraging Red Cloud students and other reservation residents to add their photos and stories to Cowbird (, a site that bills itself as “like a Wikipedia for life”. Unlike social networking sites, which are generally driven by an ethos of faster-shorter-more, and unlike blogs, which are generally sequential diaries laid out in neat reverse-chronological order, Cowbird provides a forum for users to tell their stories – however they may be structured – and to read the stories of others.

In order to get students started on the Cowbird platform, Huey visited classes at Red Cloud High School and asked students to each bring in one photograph that meant something to them. Those who did then had the photos scanned onto the site, and were asked to provide a brief description of the picture, and why it was meaningful to or representative of them, in either written or recorded audio form. The results are sometimes humorous, often moving, and always thought-provoking.

Huey, who started visiting the reservation seven years ago, says he was looking for a way to let local people tell their own stories to a broader audience, without the filter of traditional mass media. Huey describes much of his early work on the reservation as fitting into the genre of “superficial journalism,” which has long-characterized much of the mainstream media’s approach to reporting on reservation affairs.

Huey was able to break out of this mold, however, by spending enough time in reservation communities that he was able to begin to really hear what people were saying about who they were, and how they wanted to be represented. Much of the evolution of Huey’s views came as result of his involvement with Red Cloud School. Following the 2009 publication of New York Times photo essay of many of his reservation images (, a Red Cloud High School English teacher sent him a packet of letters written by students in which they discussed how they felt the photo series represented (or didn’t represent) them.

Huey realized that the approach that needed to be taken – and that had been missing from so much journalism about Native people – was to provide them with a platform that would enable them to tell their own stories. It had also become increasingly clear that modern technology and the internet had the potential to be a great leveler in regard to journalism, and that given the right tools, people could bypass the filter of the traditional media and tell their stories themselves instead of through outsiders. Huey stated, “How do you represent an entire people? The answer is that you can’t. But what is possible is to help people to amplify their own stories, their own voices, their own pictures.”

With this in mind, Huey hopes to help students upload and post between 50-200 photo-stories during his two weeks at Red Cloud. He has also been soliciting testimonials from the broader reservation community. The philosophy behind the website aligns well with Huey’s understanding of the need for cutting out the journalistic middleman. He does not perform any editing of submitted material, merely some minor curating work to ensure, for example, that particularly compelling stories are more prominent on the site.

Red Cloud senior Marisa Snider has already put several photos and audio narratives onto the site. When Huey showed her how the platform worked, she immediately grasped its potential. “I feel like it’s important to get the story out there,” she said,

“It’s a great opportunity for students and others to reach people around the world, and let people know about us. Before now, stories about the reservation would automatically be negative – focused on alcoholism and that sort of thing. People don’t see that there are young people and [institutions such as] our school who are trying to make a difference.”

Snider has gotten the images she has used from her grandmothers extensive collection of old photos. She has enjoyed using Cowbird to tell the stories behind the pictures, and she says she will continue adding content into the future. She said, “We [Lakota people] are a strong people, but it’s important for people to realize that strength only goes so far. Also, people also need to see the thin line that exists between strength and pity – that line needs to be defined. We don’t need to be pitied, but we do need to remember our strength.”

Student photo-stories can be found here:, and stories about the broader Pine Ridge Reservation can be found here: