By Jacqueline Koch, Co-Founder, Partner – Boost! Collective
We’ve hit the one-year mark since the 2016 election. The 2017 election results offer a glimmer of hope. Last month at the 2017 Seattle Interactive Conference, National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey, founder of the Amplifier Foundation, recounted his shift from a traditional media platform to art. He outlined the role of artists as storytellers in major cultural movements and the power of language as a unifier between “red” and “blue.”
It’s a compelling premise: Art as a tremendous story-accelerant in fueling a cultural or social justice movement. Yet the photojournalist in me buckled. Art? What about the power of images and photo documentary work?
Here is where I’m coming from. When I picked up a camera for a career path, it was with the conviction that images have the power to change the world. Look at the giants of photojournalism who shaped our understanding of history—from Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith and Eddie Adams to James Nachtwey, Nick Ut and Mary Ellen Mark, just to name a few. They told important stories that had yet to be told. They connected us with the rich and layered world we live in.
But then the world changed in ways we couldn’t anticipate. The internet, royalty free images, a withered the media industry, Facebook, Instagram and the ubiquitous iPhone. Today, everyone is a photographer, a citizen journalist, a blogger. Some of the most iconic images of our time are snapshots from a smartphone or point-and-shoot. Think Abu Graib. To survive, many photojournalists I know, myself included, had to reinvent themselves, be it in academia, new media, PR or other related pursuits.
A few lucky ones soldier on. But then there are outliers. Take Aaron Huey, who pivoted in an unexpected and highly innovative direction, redefining the power of images through a heady combination of photos, art and language.
Without a doubt, National Geographic is a great gig. But Huey was looking for a more robust platform for advocacy journalism, which is ever more essential in the Trump era.
“Art is the light in these very dark times,” Huey stated.
Trump had yet to announce his presidential aspirations in 2014, when Huey launched the Amplifier Foundation, an “art machine for social change.” It was the next level for an expanding portfolio of documentary work of the Lakota on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, TED talks and a series of interactive multi-media collaborations, including a National Geographic-supported community storytelling project. It built on previous collaborations with artist activists, Shepard Fairey, renowned for his Obama “HOPE” posters, which went viral in 2008 and Ernesto Yerena, creator of Hecho Con Ganas.
A triptych for the Trump era
Fast forward to Trump’s unexpected election win. Journalism just wasn’t enough to do the advocacy work, Huey explained. He and Fairey joined forces again to launch a simple-but-brilliant guerrilla fundraising and art distribution movement.
“Today we are in a very different moment, one that requires new images that reject the hate, fear, and open racism that were normalized during the 2016 presidential campaign,” reads the “We the People” Kickstarter intro.
Armed with a mighty series of compelling illustrations, each by recognized artist activists, Amplifier threw an artistic collaboration into high gear. The goal: To sidestep restrictions on signs and banners—and free speech?—on Inauguration Day. It was an overwhelming success. A jaw-dropping 22,840 backers raised a whopping $1,365,105 to fund “a hack” that would distribute the images on a massive scale. Full-page ads ran in major publications providing marchers with posters to take into the streets, hang in windows or paste on walls.
Today these iconic illustrations are the triptych for the post-Trump era. Three compelling images—a Latina, an African American and a Muslim woman—by photographers Arlene Majorado, Delphine Diallo, and Ridwan Adhami, respectively. Each is rendered with Fairey’s trademark style and reinforces a singular statement that unites all Americans: We the People.
Untouchable language in the American narrative
And it’s here that Huey’s story takes another interesting turn. It starts with a question we should all be asking ourselves. “What do you say when the world’s attention is focused on one place,” Huey asked, “…when the whole world is watching?”
The American narrative has been highjacked, Huey continued. How do we get it back on track? Huey gathered thought leaders, students, journalists, heads of leading foundation and poets to create “language labs.” Through these brainstorming sessions, they identified “untouchable language.” It is language that cannot be violated, that is a unifier and that is neither “red” nor “blue.” This paired “We the People” with three basic tenets: We are greater than fear. We defend dignity. We protect each other.
“Art as advocacy. It’s beautifully simple, but really hard to do well,” Huey noted. But art, like some of the most the memorable photographs documenting history, has undeniable power,
“… to represent change, to move change and to assist us in how we walk in the world,” he added.
We’ve hit the one-year mark since the 2016 election. And the world continues to change in unexpected ways. Despite an assault on the media, fake news, Russian interference in the election and #MeToo, the 2017 election results offer a glimmer of hope. They also give me a renewed appreciation for Huey’s approach. In translating powerful images into art, buttressed by simple statements, demanding that we stand by our fundamental values, is it possible we might return to them?
We the People, We the Future
“I don’t have faith in the grownups,” Huey joked. So with backing from Stanford University, Amplifier developed an educational webinar program to bring art in the classroom—engaging more than 2,000 teachers to date—and fostering dialogue around civics, climate change and cross-cultural understanding.
Amplifier has set sights on the future by betting on school children. Yet in the Trump era, there is still a corporate elephant in the room, and Huey wants to tackle it too. Can big business learn how to be a good corporate citizen from art-driven advocacy?
Huey explained that social innovation can also take place in a corporate environment through simple but intentional steps. “Define what you believe in and create a compass,” he said, noting that the success of We the People Kickstarter campaign was founded in “people-power” and was catalyzed by words they believed in.
“If we believe these words, this is our compass,” he said. “Within every company, let there be a compass.”