Documentary explores ‘how we tell stories’

Eric Becker’s film Honor the Treaties documents Seattle photojournalist Aaron Huey’s multi-year experiences on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.


By David A. Brensilver

Eric Becker, who earned a master’s degree in 2006 from the Yale School of Public Health, recently released a “video I want everyone in the world to see”— not because he filmed it, but because of what he filmed. Becker’s latest film, Honor the Treaties, is a 14-minute documentary about Seattle-based photojournalist Aaron Huey’s multi-year experiences on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

More specifically, the film, which was released to the public on the Internet, chronicles Huey’s growth over the seven years he’s spent photographing that community.

It’s “an analysis,” Becker said in a telephone conversation, “of how we often get stories wrong.”

“It’s easy to forget that the way we represent people is often wrong,” Becker said from his home in Seattle, where, a year and a half ago, he met Huey in a coffee shop.

Huey asked Becker to travel to Los Angeles to film the launch of a “poster campaign” Huey conceived with artists Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena.

At Yale, Becker said he realized that social justice issues are often communication issues. In Honor the Treaties, he shows Huey’s transformation from objective photojournalist to impassioned storyteller.

“I was doing a survey on poverty in America, and Pine Ridge was just a statistic,” Huey explains in the film. “In the beginning, there was me, seeing this extreme poverty and violence and gangs and saying, ‘Whoa, I have to get that (on film). This is crazy. There are gangs in a town of 300, in the plains of South Dakota.’ And so, I wanted that story, I had my own agenda.”

Through Huey’s narration and photographs, and interviews with residents of a town called Manderson, Becker’s film captures what one resident describes as “the same old cycle of sin” and the people stuck therein.

“A lot of the kids call it ‘Murderville,’” Huey says in the documentary, “it’s a place with a lot of suffering. … It’s a place I continue to go back to … for my work and because I care about the people that I’ve come in contact with there.”

Candidly, Huey says, “I failed for a long time in this project in not telling the story right. In some ways, really poor places are quite easy to photograph. … Nobody looks into, ‘How did we arrive at that place?’”

For Huey, things changed when he was asked to give a Ted Talk about the work he’d been doing.

“I sat down with the work and thought, ‘What do I want to say about this?’ … I wanted to really tie it to a history, and I think that it was in that moment that I really realized that this was the time to pick a side.”

Becker’s film shows part of Huey’s Ted Talk — titled “America’s native prisoners of war” — at which the photojournalist explained, “The Pine Ridge Reservation … is sometimes referred to as Prisoner of War Camp No. 334 and is where the Lakota now live.”

“That was the moment it stopped being just about journalism,” Huey tells Becker in Honor the Treaties, “when I actually took a side. And I chose their side, and I chose to say what they wanted me to say.”

In documenting Huey’s transformation, from objective photojournalist to impassioned storyteller, Becker hopes to cut through the noise that surrounds our lives — in much the same way that the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation got through — if inadvertently — to Huey.

“I don’t think as photojournalists we’re ever totally indifferent,” Huey says in Becker’s film, “but this was the first time where I didn’t just know which side was the right side … I put everything into that side.”

Fairey perhaps captures best what Becker wants to achieve with Honor the Treaties.

“The amazing thing about art,” Fairey says in the film, “is that it can hit people in the gut and affect them emotionally and remind them that they need to be intellectually rigorous about the things that make them feel.”

Learn more about Eric Becker and Honor the Treaties on the filmmaker’s website, weareshouting.com.

Huey’s photographs are featured in the August issue of National Geographic, whose website features audio clips of interviews Huey conducted with residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

A version of this story appeared in the New Haven Independent.

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