Hawkeye Huey is the 5-Year Old Photographer Chronicling the American West
Over the course of 18 months, National Geographic Photographer Aaron Huey went on a series of trips with his 5-year old son, Hawkeye. Armed with his first analog camera, Hawkeye took almost 1,000 photos that have since become a killer Instagram account. What started as their first big trip without Mom is now on its way to becoming a book — for Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann finds out more.
Emily von Hoffmann: Can you describe the concept and scope of this project for our readers? How did the idea for this adventure arise?
Aaron Huey: It began simply enough: a father and son going on their first big trip away from Mom. We were travelling to the Salton Sea in Southern California, to make (and sleep), in blanket forts in the desert. The blanket fort blew away on the first day, but luckily we had bought Hawkeye an analog camera on the way there.
A Polaroid style camera like the cameras of my own youth. I chose that camera partly out of nostalgia for film and the scarcity of physical images today, but also because I didn’t want to see a four-year-old learn about making photographs by holding his finger on the touchscreen of an iPhone (until the device was filled with hundreds of photos of nothing).
Photography is a big part of my life (I shoot photos for National Geographic Magazine) so I thought it would be a fun experiment to share what I do, and how I meet people, with my son. Over the next 18 months we made a series of adventures, traveling together around the American West making photographs together.
We travelled from Salvation Mountain, to the the chutes at the Cody Night Rodeo, we visited the markets of the Navajo Nation, and cruised the Las Vegas strip. We shared Hawkeye’s photos on Instagram and the project quickly developed a huge following with well over 100,000 followers now.
EvH: Over the course of your trip, Hawkeye took nearly 1,000 photos. Did you find it inevitable, given your own profession, that he would take so enthusiastically to photography? Or were you surprised that your gift was such a hit?
AH: At the age of four, I think Hawkeye was open to just about anything. We also shoot a bow and arrows, play with Legos, and draw. Our first trip wasnt really about photography, we were going to make blanket forts. The photography part just kind of happened.
EvH: Can you tell us about some of your favorite images from this collection, and the situation surrounding them?
AH: I love the very first images he made at Slab City. These first photos were made of “Traveler” kids and Hobos, at Slab City, a transient community living in tents, trailers, improvised shacks, and abandoned water tanks. I saw in that first set of photos he laid out on the floor of a tent camp, a set of images filled with flaws, and smiles, and with body parts cut off.
Images that weren’t perfectly sharp or able to be blown up to 8 feet wide for maximum effect in a gallery. Images that were not influenced by Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, or Bill Allard. His photos somehow fit into this tradition, but not because he wanted them to. This knee-high perspective of desert dwellers and hills and tumbleweeds was unlike anything I had ever seen.
I also loved the images he made on the Navajo Nation. As a 4-year-old he was able to walk right in and start making photos, he wasn’t threatening or trying to take some thing away. He made people smile, he gave them that, so they gave him great photos in return. I didn’t even try to lift my camera that day. I just supported him, because he had better access than I did!
EvH: You describe your 18-month trip as a period of “making photographs, meeting strangers, chasing light, and learning how to see.” Who were some of the strangers you met, and how did they react to you and your son?
AH: Much of our approach comes from my own previous experiences photographing people in the streets, in cafes, and tourists stops. A long time ago (2002) I walked across America for 5 months, every step from coast to coast. On that trip I learned a lot about how to talk to people and so I wanted my son to learn in this same way.
We always talked to the people we photographed. We often would photograph people next to us in restaurants or at markets. Hawkeye was very good at just walking right up to people asking them if he could take their photo. Sometime if he felt shy he would ask me to help introduce him. The reaction from strangers was almost always a huge smile.
EvH: You presented that learning process as a shared one between you and Hawkeye — did you instruct him much, or was this more an opportunity for you to learn how he sees?
AH: It went both ways. I learned from his pictures, and am learning still as I edit them. My instruction to him was built in for many reasons, he had to be safe, so that meant I was watching closely and always with him.
I also drove the car so I was choosing most of our stops based on places I had been before or remembered from my childhood. And I chose places I wanted to see and photograph myself. All of that influenced the images we are sharing. Sometimes I’d tell him very specifically to try to get close-up shots when he went to make a portrait. But sometimes I’d just send him into a group that I felt safe with and watch him work.
EvH: What do you think is next for you and him?
AH: I think we will move on to something beyond photography. We may go back to blanket forts. We may make big wooden towers, earth work art, or we may go deep into large scale Lego models or engineering and science projects. Hawkeye is getting old enough to steer this ship, so it will be up to him.