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Vis-Ed: Aaron Huey—From Afghani Drug Raids to Oklahoma Frat Houses, This is One Photographer Who Ain't Never Scared

"It's not how many, it's how deep," says Aaron Huey. Get your mind out of the gutter—I've just asked him how many countries he's visited. It's a question he doesn't like to answer because it makes him "sound like a backpacker in Thailand"—though Huey's resume would strike fear and awe into the heart of even the most intrepid Kiwi hosteller.

In his 33 years on the planet, this renowned documentary photographer has walked across America and hitchhiked across Siberia, found beauty in the poorest areas of the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Georgia, danced with Sufi mystics, and run from potential kidnappers in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and other mysterious and war-torn areas of the world.

Growing up in a small farming town in Wyoming, Huey always had an artistic bent, taking off for Slovakia at the age of 18 to study stone sculpting. He found himself bitten by the travel bug and, despite a degree in painting and printmaking, turning increasingly towards the storytelling powers of the camera lens. It’s served him well—he has photographed for National Geographic, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, Harper's, and The New York Times, built an artist-in-residence program in New Mexico, and been nominated for numerous prizes along the way.

Although currently based in Seattle, Washington (with his wife, Kristin, his son, Hawkeye, and their dog, Suki), Huey might be anywhere in a given week, including shuttling between two ongoing projects: shooting large format photos of Salvation Mountain in the desert outside of Palm Springs, California and documenting a Native American reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. We caught him on a rare occasion—editing photos while listening to The Glitch Mob and Blockhead—and asked him to tell us some stories.

Flying kites in a graveyard on the edge of Kabul, 2007

XLR8R: Where did you grow up and what did your parents do for a living?
Aaron Huey:I grew up in a town of 5,000 in Wyoming. I lived with my stepfather, an accountant at a Pepsi-Cola plant, and my mother, an elementary-school secretary. My birth father was in theater and runs a small program at a college in the panhandle of Texas.

What job did you want when you were 15?
I wanted to be a painter, somewhere between Abstract Expressionism and Pop.

What artists influenced you when you were younger?
All propaganda art. Gilbert and George, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Tyler Hicks, William Albert Allard.

What is the craziest place in the world you’ve been?
It’s always about both the place and the timing, never just the geographic location. I’d say the Taliban schools in Chaman, on the Pakistani/Afghan border (pre-Sept 11, 2001); street protests in Shiraz, Iran on the 20th anniversary of the hostage crisis; a temple site called Kekku in Eastern Burma (only five other outsiders had seen it at that point, back in 1998); dance parties in Kabul, Afghanistan and poppy fields in the South; the mountains of Svanetia in the Georgian Republic; and the old city of Sana’a, Yemen.

Poppy eradication near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 2007

What percent of your travels are on assignment?
It’s 50/50. Everything I’ve ever done on my own, I’ve later sold. If I believe in it, I can always get it published in some form.

Give us one travel tip.
Travel alone and go someplace that scares you. It doesn’t have to be a war zone—it can be even be your hometown—but just go a bit deeper than you are comfortable with.

What has been the most heartbreaking thing you’ve seen while photographing?
My entire four years documenting several families on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. I’ve never seen such darkness. I’ve never seen a war that won't end.

What is the greatest length to which you’ve gone to get a particular photo?
On the Pine Ridge reservation, I slept on the floors of gangster kids' homes while they drank and fought all night, endured death threats, and generally put myself in a position no outsider has been willing to, and I kept coming back. That long-term commitment has led to amazing access and amazing images. On assignment for The New Yorker in Afghanistan, I went on the first attempt at drug eradication in the Oruzgan province and was nearly killed in a four-and-a-half-hour running gun battle/ambush, separated from the American mercenaries with no armored vehicle, running through enemy villages with a Taliban prisoner. (I have pics.)

Taliban Ambush in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, 2007

What do you feel is the best way to make your subjects feel comfortable?
I either go way deep and spend a lot of time with them or just hang out until people get bored with having photos taken or forget I’m around, because that's when I get the shot–when they aren’t thinking about me. Sometimes that means being a part of their life for a while before you get out the camera.

Any advice for young photographers?
Be willing to take on huge debt to make your art. Make your work deeper and better than those before you and eventually someone will notice. If you don’t think the work is better than what you’ve seen, then go back until it is. If you don’t have credit cards, then figure out how to do commercial work for the mega-corporations. There is no money in photojournalism. It’s a desperate way to make a living. The day rate for editorial photographers is stuck in 1982.

What is your dream assignment?
Anything that pays me $40,000 or more (my total credit card debt)! I’m already doing my dream assignments, I’m just not getting my dream paychecks.

Carbon Canyon, Los Angeles fires, 2008

Sufi Shrine, Pakistan, 2006

Who is your dream artist to photograph?
Neko Case, and any band that wears costumes.

What is the luckiest photo you’ve ever taken?
My image in Pakistan of a man kneeling at a grave near the Sufi shrine of Uch Sharif.

Do you feel like you have a particular style to your photographs?
I don’t use any tricks. A lot of shooters winning awards these days are doing crazy Photoshop alterations of color, or hardcore vignetting around the edges with Photoshop filters. I’m not sure how to describe my style. A lot of my work is dark and looks a bit sad, which is strange because I’m such a smiley, over-the-top positive guy who wears gold shoes most days. My "walk across America" portraits make people look a bit introspective, and because of that they look a bit sad. I guess I like that moment when people go inside themselves and are unaware of me.

What was the catalyst for you deciding to walk across America?
I wanted to do something impossible, something without end, so I could focus on the present. The walk stayed that way until Indiana. When I could see the end, I lost interest (but I still finished walking).

The grave of Staff Sgt. Timothy P. Davis, age 28

How long did it take you to cross America, and what are some of your most indelible memories of the trip?
It took 154 days, walking anywhere from 15 to 46 miles per day; a total of 3,349 miles. Some memories include: running out of water in the middle of the Bradshaw Trail (a 100-mile dirt road in the Mojave Desert); running up Salt River Canyon; my visit with a transvestite named Oweena; all-night walks in the central states playing my Hot Lixxx Solid Gold Rock Star toy guitar; a frat house in Norman, Oklahoma; the 46-mile day; Amish country; and Bloody Marys at Battery Park.

When you’re away from home, what do you end up craving?
Diversity in food. If I’m in a place for a long time, I start to get tired of lamb and injera.

What are the most essential qualities of a documentary photographer? Can those be developed or are they innate?
Some things can be learned. A visual understanding of great composition and how to use a camera and expensive lenses can be learned, but drive and a real hunger for making photos and telling stories… I don’t think that part can be learned. You either have that inside or you don’t. I think a willingness to take risks is what makes a great shooter.

Female student in Sana'a, Yemen, 2009

Where are you itching to go?
Back to Burma. Back to Iran. Back to Afghanistan. Syria. The Sudan. Would love to see North Korea.

What area of the world do you feel deserves more coverage right now?
Burma. No one cares because we have nothing to gain, but people are suffering terribly there.

What is the last thing you saw that really shocked you?
A Sufi urs [pilgrimage in remembrance of a saint's death] in remote Pakistan, and being on the run from a potential kidnapping threat on the same trip. Everything in Yemen. The tea fields at sunrise in Western Kenya.

What is your biggest vice?
Ego. Hey, I’m human.

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