When tragedy strikes, it’s easy to feel concerned and confused about how to help those involved. When 16 Sherpa guides were killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest on April 18th, photographer Aaron Huey knew he needed to respond. Huey recently completed shooting an assignment about the Sherpas and their culture for National Geographic magazine that will run in the coming months. While working on this project, he gained an intimate understanding of the dangers of the Sherpa lifestyle. In response to the tragedy, Huey organized a print sale with twelve other photographers to help raise money for the Sherpa community. I caught up with Huey over email and asked him to tell me about the Sherpa Fund’s unexpected success.
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: Tell me the details of the sale—how many prints were sold, how long did the sale run for, how much money was raised, how did you launch it?
AARON HUEY: The print sale ran for eight days and we sold nearly 4,000 prints with over $424,000 coming in. All funds will be distributed by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.
The idea was born out of a conversation with Grayson Shaffer, a Senior Editor at Outside magazine. The initial sale idea was actually his. He called me the day after the event. In the wake of the tragedy on Everest we were both devastated, and so were many of our colleagues in the photo world who had worked in the region with the Sherpas. I had just done a very successful Instagram flash sale of my own images, and we wanted to model it after that and spread it through social networks. Grayson and I talked it out that day and as he boarded a plane to Nepal to report on the accident, I started building [the site], working over three days and nights with almost no sleep. It launched on the fourth day.
As photographers, it was an easy decision to do this. To be able to have that community benefit from the photographs we made in their homes and villages, and in the mountains they helped us climb, was such a clear and obvious path to support them in this time of need. For me, this is a natural extension of telling the stories of communities.
JANNA: What was your initial reaction when you heard the news of the accident, especially considering the story you have been working on?
AARON: I was sad, but I was not surprised. The mountains are a dangerous place, no one is under any illusion about that. For me, Everest is a strange spectacle. Many people who climb Everest have never tied into a rope before or put on crampons. That is because Everest is not a technical climb, it’s a “walk up,” where clients pay $35,000 – $120,000 to be led up the mountain, pulling their way up on mechanical ascenders, on ropes put there by the Sherpas, ropes that cover almost all the mountain up to the summit. People crowd tents with big screen TVs running on generators. The whole thing is a ridiculous scene. All of it is built on the backs of the Sherpas, who put Everest Base Camp together, and who do the dangerous work of putting up the ropes and carrying gear back and forth through the icefall to establish the camps clients will sleep in.
But commercial expedition mountains are a complex world, so it’s not so black and white that one would say “They shouldn’t have to do that!” I would never dare to say that commercial expeditions shouldn’t climb these mountains or use Sherpa support. It’s how the Sherpas make their living. If that were to go away they would have very little to provide for their families. The best we can do is support them through better pay, better insurance, and better education.
I think that is the responsibility of the community that uses the labor of the Sherpas to accomplish their dreams.
The mountains are dangerous, everyone involved knows it. We can’t treat everyone like children and tell them they can’t be there. These are individuals choosing their own paths. But we can provide a better safety net for the Sherpas and their families.
JANNA: What connection do you have to the Sherpa community now and what do you hope it will be in the future?
AARON: I came to know the Sherpa people because I have been working on a story for National Geographic magazine in the Khumbu for the past year. When I go this deep, I connect with people in a way that makes it impossible to be a removed observer at a time like this.
I didn’t just take pictures away from the Khumbu, I made friends. And this is what friends do.
JANNA: Why did you choose the prints that you chose?
AARON: I reached out to photographers I knew who had done serious work in the Himalayas, and specifically the Khumbu region where Everest is located. The final gallery was curated by our photo editors: National Geographic magazine’s Sadie Quarrier and Outside magazine’s Amy Silverman. Some of the images are clearly spiritual in nature or leading us to contemplate something bigger than us—like Cory’s hands and Pete’s starry night. Some are more literal like mine of a Sherpa carrying a load back to base camp—it does the work of setting up the story and context. And then there are also just images of pure beauty and composition that we thought people would want to hang on their walls to remember these people. I truly believe that these images will continue to do work on the hearts and minds of the people who bought them for many years to come—every time they see them hanging on their walls.
JANNA: What kind of impact do you hope the money raised will have on the Sherpa community?
AARON: I know that the money will do several things. It will:
- Provide some relief to families that are suffering from this most recent tragedy.
- Help provide education to the families of the deceased (through the Sherpa Family Fund administered by the AHF)
- Help continue the work of the Khumbu Climbing Center which focuses on vocational training for high altitude workers, teaching mountain safety, rescue, and climbing skills in the region—saving lives by helping to prevent accidents
- Support Everest ER—the medical clinic at Everest Base Camp, which has treated hundreds of climbers and porters during its past 12 seasons.
Beyond that, I hope this event and these efforts will help focus attention on safer ways to climb and better support systems for the high-altitude workers. It’s time to take a step back and look at the big picture, of what roles we play and what our responsibilities are as we interact with the Sherpa community.
JANNA: Why do you think the print sale has been relatively successful in a short period of time?
AARON: I would actually phrase it as “ridiculously successful.” We have been blown away by the results.
I think the success had many layers. To begin with, it was driven by the photographers on our own initiative instead of being brand driven. That kind of grass-roots effort, driven by our followings on social media, and with help from celebrities like Lance Armstrong and Shepard Fairey just to name a few, gave the Fund incredible reach instantaneously. After news outlets started seeing it, the story was picked up and went out through magazines, TED.com, adventure websites, photography blogs and so on, creating a domino effect throughout the week.
The fact that eleven of these photographers have been affiliated with National Geographic also helped. Now 4,000 people will have these images on their walls. The photos made the sale more than just a request for funding, it made it an offer. It is rare that a person can buy a National Geographic photographer’s images for $100, so National Geographic photographers doing this was quite special. Many people donated for the Sherpas, but most likely just as many came for the photographs.
JANNA: How can people continue to help the Sherpa community?
AARON: We will not be promoting it widely, but we have reopened the store because of the overwhelming number of emails that came in from people who had missed it. You can still buy prints at www.sherpasfund.org.
Images for the sale were donated by Jimmy Chin, James Balog, Cory Richards, Renan Ozturk, Teru Kuwayama, Pete McBride, Gordon Wiltsie, Andy Bardon, Robb Kendrick, and Max Lowe.