Going Big, Dreaming Big: Cherokee Photographer Madison Hye Long8.8.2017
You may not recognize the name Madison Hye Long, but you've probably seen her stunning photos of Cherokee, NC, all over Instagram—on accounts like Visit Cherokee, Visit Smokies, and elsewhere. Madison captures lush mountain vistas, star-studded purple skies, and golden sunsets draped in clouds. Madison shoots what she loves—her hometown of Cherokee, NC—and she wants to share the beauty that she sees with the rest of the world.
On weekends, she plans adventures. Equipped with a camera and accompanied by her best friend Lacey, who helps carry her extra camera gear, Madison sets out to explore the mountains and see what unfolds. “We’re outdoorsy girls,” she says. “Very tomboy.”
They might be gone for half a day, or the whole day. It just depends. Sometimes she sets out at night, to catch the Milky Way as it swirls above her at 2 a.m. Other times, Madison takes a four-wheeler deep into woods, to a secret spot where her father likes to fish.
Her shots, she says, are mostly taken around Cherokee.
“I really try to stay on the reservation, although sometimes I veer off on the Parkway about 20 miles off,” Madison says.
A Love of Nature
Madison is an Eastern Band of Cherokee native, born and raised in the Paint Town community. The youngest of three girls, she grew up camping, fishing, and hiking with her family. Her father taught Madison and her sisters about wild native plants, and how they were traditionally used.
“He wanted us to know our resources around here,” she says.
When she was twelve years old, she asked for a camera.
“My mom and dad bought me a little, cheap, waterproof camera, and then maybe about three years later they bought me a Canon DSLR. Gradually I got better, and when I graduated high school I had my own money and bought a full-frame camera, a Canon 5D Mark III.”
From Cherokee to San Francisco
After high school, Madison moved to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University, the largest private art and design school in the country, where she has been studying documentary photography for the past two years.
“Leaving Cherokee was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Around Cherokee, everyone is very family oriented. My family is very close. No one really moves away,” she says.
During school holidays and summer breaks, she makes it a point to come home to Cherokee.
“Going away really makes you appreciate what you have back home. Whenever I come back home, I just love to shoot.”
Through her love of photography, Madison wants to show another side of Cherokee, combating the stereotypes she sees about Native Americans.
“I want to show people that we are independent. We are sovereign. These young Native Americans who are becoming adults, myself included, want to show this different side of being native.”
It’s also important to Madison to be looked at as an artist, first, making her own impact in the world.
Along with her friend, Lacey, she recently started a business, Qualla Boiz.
“Right now we’re making stickers and T-shirts. We do our own designs and we want to interpret culture. Basketry is a big part of the Cherokees; that’s what makes us unique. We have our own designs that have been passed down and we want people to see that, and see what it’s like being Cherokee,” she says.
So what’s next for Madison?
She wants to finish her degree and continue her passion for photography, and get better at it. Someday, she dreams of working for National Geographic.
“You know, going big,” she says. “Dreaming big.”
Although she is heading back to San Francisco for school this fall, you can still experience Madison’s work in Western North Carolina. One of her landscape photographs is on display through October 22 at the Asheville Art Museum on the Slope. Home Land is an exhibit showcasing the work of southeastern native artists. See an example of Madison’s work there, and be sure to follow her at madison_hye on Instagram.