Captionless photos run through Aaron Huey's book of photos from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota like an unruly river, some to the edges of the pages, overflowing the banks of what we see. There's beautiful bleakness, mostly free of context—maybe because, as Huey told me, "the more time I spend [at Pine Ridge], the more confused I am about what to do with it."
As a journalist for National Geographic and Harper's, Huey became a righteous advocate, exhorting the federal government to honor the treaties and give back the Black Hills. You may have seen his "Honor the Treaties" poster campaign with street-art mogul Shepard Fairey.
But there are problems. Huey says he began to be consulted as the "Encyclopedia Britannica of the rez" by some and attacked by others as "the new Great White Satan."
Meanwhile, Pine Ridge life continued unchanged, and despite his close relationships with a handful of people, he couldn't escape being an outside observer. He has harsh words for white people who move onto reservations or attend ceremonies and "steal" Native spirituality "because this world of material goods is not really working out."
You need to know that backstory when you approach the book, called Mitakuye Oyasin—otherwise the book appears to be another pretty picture book of ugly things. It is more layered. It contains pictures nobody is supposed to take, of a medicine man in his mask, working. If Huey was invited to take pictures of something sacred, he did. If not—or if taking a picture would get someone arrested—he didn't. Those were the basic rules—as if they are basic.
"I was scared to show them the book," he said, referring to people in Pine Ridge. "I wasn't scared to show them anything else. But this is the first thing I've done that's not for them."
Our conversation about the book rode the roller coaster of Huey's conflicted feelings. He doubles back, goes into free fall. "It's overly harsh to say it's not for them, actually. But my purpose in the world is not to go around making feel-good projects. Wait, that's not true."
As the artist Martha Rosler once said about her photographs of poverty on the Bowery, art is an "inadequate descriptive system." Art is a better reflection of confusion and conflict than advocacy. Huey's book is a portrait of the unavoidably exploitative mess of being a white photographer on the reservation. This may not be what you'd prefer, and it's certainly not the whole picture. But it's not the whole picture of Huey's contribution, either. It deserves to be considered along with the community portal Huey set up on the National Geographic website, where Pine Ridge people post pictures and stories of their own. Huey worked for a year to make that happen. Another year, he worked on this book.
The little boy drew what he'd seen with crayons: yellow sun, concrete wall, soldier with angrily scrunched face, boy lying on the ground with blood pouring out of a bullet hole in his forehead. Brian McCarty set out to make a photographic version of the drawing, in the actual location where the boy said it happened: on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, near the Kalandia checkpoint. Using war toys he found in local markets, McCarty set plastic soldiers in the sand and used a syringe to squirt red liquid under a Playmobil boy. When the noisy clash of an actual protest broke out behind his miniature scene, photojournalists rushed in, but McCarty kept his lens on the toys.
"It seems mad that I didn't turn the camera toward the people running away with swollen faces and red eyes, but I felt I made the right choice," McCarty said in a TEDx talk. "I came for, and I got, a little boy's perspective."
McCarty's new book, War-Toys (brianmccarty.com, $32), pairs drawings by kids in Israel and Palestine—some of them painfully detailed—with the photographs he describes as "art-directed" by the kids. He's careful to point out that he's supervised by art therapists at established shelters.
On location, as McCarty set toy buses or buildings on fire, real soldiers—with their own memories of real events—eyed him skeptically. In the final photographs, the real scenery appears in forced perspective so the toys look life-size. Juxtaposed with play, the adult war looks markedly mad. McCarty wants to extend the reflective project to other warring parts of the globe, too; he's speaking about why on December 5 at the Central Library.
War-Toys rephrases enduring questions about war, art, and photography, chiefly: How much does making a picture matter? All the kids, Israeli or Palestinian, want to visit places they can't. They want to grow arms long enough to stop missiles. So they draw them.
McCarty's photographs are occasionally generic or slick, like Hollywood posters. But taken as a group, they restage universal dilemmas with crystalline kid-clarity.