Ani Yahzid Brings Diversity to the Outdoors
Ani Yahzid and I both went to Fountain Valley School of Colorado, a boarding school in the middle of the prairie on the edge of Colorado Springs. Ani was pretty quiet and, being two years older than him, we didn’t know each other that well. Still, we shared an advisor and shot baskets together in the gym every now and then. About a year ago, I noticed that Ani– now a student at Colorado University at Boulder– had started doing some photography and filmmaking that he posted on his website. His videos of animals in the Rockies, spliced and set to music, captivated me, a long-time Colorado local. Recently, Ani realized that he has the power to use his art to encourage more diverse, urban-dwelling kids to get into the outdoors. He organized a conference focusing on “Diversity in the Outdoors” at the REI flagship store in Denver. Now, he’s bringing an up-and-coming rapper and his producer to Olympic National Park for The Exposure Project. Earlier this week, I talked to Ani about his love of the outdoors, capturing footage of a black bear, and his approach to filmmaking.
Sage Marshall: I’m curious about how you first became interested in the outdoors. Did that start when you first moved out to Colorado?
Ani Yahzid: I grew up in a house with a lot of cousins and my sister Donari, and whenever I’d get the remote I’d turn on Nat Geo and Animal Planet to watch nature documentaries. So, I was just super interested in animals. Then, I used to go to the Boys & Girls Club with Donari, and we used to go on ICO (Inspiring Connection Outdoors) hiking trips. The Sierra Club would come pick us up on the weekends and drive us to the North Georgia mountains to take us hiking. These mountains aren’t really crazy; they’re just nice trees and hills. It’s not like the “Colorado Outdoors,” but it was just cool to get out of the city.
It was the small things on those trips that I liked. I remember one time, we hiked up to this peak and–this is like ten kids from Atlanta who had never traveled much–when we got to the top, there was a little bit of snow that had almost melted. It was so cool. everyone was like “oh! Snow!”
Then, Donari and I got accepted to Fountain Valley out in Colorado. I ended up making a friend with a car. Every Saturday, we’d ritualistically drive to Garden of the Gods and climb the slabs. It was a whole other world. Before I left Atlanta, I had an accent and I remember thinking to myself: “oh my god, I’m going to this private school. I’ve got to stop saying the N-word.” I also remember thinking that if anybody asked who my favorite musician was, instead of saying Lil’ Wayne, I’d say Usher or something super white. It was crazy to go from the Atlanta cultural bubble and get dropped in Colorado, and I was very introverted at first. After a couple of years, I sort of absorbed it, and it became more normal.
Still, I left a lot of friends in Atlanta that had no connection at all to the outdoors. When I went back to Atlanta, I’d tell my friends: “yo, we did this canoeing trip in this canyon–“
SM: Do you remember where this was?
AY: Near Grand Junction, I think. One day on the trip, we climbed up the canyon wall and looked over the top, and there was a herd of bighorn sheep that stampeded when they saw us. But when I told my friends in Atlanta, they wouldn’t care at all because they didn’t know much about that type of outdoorsy stuff. Even campaigning for The Exposure Project has been much more difficult here in Atlanta than in Colorado. I went back to my old Boys and Girls Club, and they had even stopped doing the ICO hiking trips.
SM: What lead to you start taking photos of these sort of places yourself?
AY: I mainly just wanted to photograph animals. When I was young, we went on a special four-day ICO camping trip. Most of the time, when I used to see these places on T.V. and in photos, they didn’t seem real or accessible. They were just somewhere out there that I just didn’t know about and couldn’t visit. But on the ICO camping trip, they gave us all free Sony point-and-shoot cameras. That changed things for me. I really want to find the memory card from that camera, but I can’t seem to find it. Do you know the super-macro function of cameras?
SM: (shakes head)
AY: So, the super macro function allows the camera to focus on an object and blur out the background. On that trip, I pretty much got close to anything, like a flower or leaf, and just took photos.
I was on a hike with a guide on that trip. He had a super big expensive Canon DSLR with a zoom lens, and I had my little point and shoot. I didn’t really care about his camera because I didn’t know what it was. It was kind of like a white dude thing. I was like “all these white people have these huge cameras and stuff (laughing).” When we were young, we didn’t understand why they even needed that. Then, when I was on this hike, I took a photo of this bird on a bush, and I thought that I was the photographer-of-the-year. The picture ended up being a photo of a bush… and if you looked close enough, there was a bird in it. The guide was like, “oh, nice!” Then he, super quickly got out his camera, zoomed in, took like three shots, and was like, “here, look at my photo.” He’d filled the frame with the bird, and it was a super crisp image. The bird even had a berry in his mouth. I was like “what the heck!” and I realized that cameras are dope, and that I wanted to do photography.
My friend gave me a little DSLR. When I was at Fountain Valley, I would take pictures of everybody. Then, I went to Colorado University at Boulder where I started doing a lot of nature photography. Have you ever seen the pictures of the black bear?
SM: I saw something about it on The Exposure Project page, and I was curious about that…
AY: Oh, dude! So, actually Jack McCurdy (a mutual friend) was involved. Last October, I was filming a lot of wildlife around Colorado, just birds and elk and stuff. On one hike, I took a step right next to a rattlesnake and jumped away from it when I saw it. Then, I put my camera at the end of the tripod and stuck it at the snake and got a cool shot of it rattling.
Then, I really wanted to film a black bear. I’d only ever seen a bear once before and didn’t get to take its photo. Jack came out on the first black bear hunt. We’d go up into the mountains of Chautauqua at 6 am and wait at an area with a lot of bushes and just sit and wait. We didn’t see any bears the first several trips. Jack stopped coming, and I continued going alone for like two weeks. I was getting kind of mad, so I went to the ranger station and asked them where I could find a black bear. They told me about this trail called McClintock trail. I headed up that day, just scouting out a place to sit for the future. It was 9am and most bears aren’t out that late in the morning. I even packed my camera gear, and as I was walking down the trail, this huge mamma black bear with two cubs were headed up the canyon adjacent to the trail. I didn’t get any photos, but I was like “whoa, that’s dope.” So, I would go back there every morning, and Jack came back one morning and saw the bear. Bears eat on a schedule, so I filmed this bear for a couple of weeks. I posted a couple of photos on Instagram.
The hip-hop artist Namaste thought the photos were cool and sent me a message. I gave him a call, and he a said that if I’m willing to get that close to a bear, then I could make a music video for him. So, I started working with him.
SM: Before you started talking to Namaste, did you already start thinking about using your filmmaking to bring more diversity to the outdoors? What led you to take on this issue yourself?
AY: Outdoor recreation and hip-hop are two of my greatest passions. So, I was filming in Atlanta with Namaste, and he kept suggesting that he wanted to come out to Colorado to film in the mountains. I kept sort of putting it to the side because I didn’t think it was much of a possibility.
But, when I came back to Colorado, I wondered about what if we did mix hip-hop and the outdoors. I think they are two worlds that have never really met. It was honestly just something that I thought would be cool. We started making a bunch of plans. I think the original plan was to get a car and zig-zag across the U.S., visiting like every national park with this hip-hop artist and his crew. Just camping. As we started planning more, we realized the impact that we could have because of the influence that hip-hop has here in Atlanta and in the U.S. With this film, we could make the outdoors cool.
When I was living here in Atlanta, my friends and I would always watch Youtube videos of like Lil Wayne doing cool stuff like skateboarding. We’d be like “oh, that’s dope! Let’s go try it.” Once, somebody got hurt or something, we’d go back inside and watch more YouTube videos. I think that’s where we could have the biggest impact–just having kids thinking it’s cool. I think of it as planting an inspiration in kids, by showing kids a guy from Atlanta who looks like me and talks like me out in the mountains actually doing this stuff. It’s not just some white guy with ropes and super cool gear. It’s simple, just seeing someone out there that you relate to.
SM: That’s awesome! You said that you don’t think hip-hop and the outdoors are connected right now, but do you think that they can become connected?
AY: I don’t know why they haven’t been connected already. I just think it’d be super cool, and I don’t understand why hip-hop artists haven’t tried this before. Why hasn’t like Kendrick Lamar incorporated the outdoors into his work? This should’ve been done before because I don’t think the outdoors should be limited by culture. The slogan for the campaign is “The outdoors is for everyone.” I just don’t think hip-hop and the outdoors have ever met.
I actually got an email from someone that Kanye is making an album in Wyoming or something. He’s trying to copy our idea before we get to it… well, we’ll make the film before him. I was also talking to someone about if MTV got ahold of the idea and made a reality TV by throwing like five rappers into the outdoors. Like Naked and Afraid or something.
SM: I was thinking specifically of that one! (laughing)
AY: You can definitely capitalize on this as a form of entertainment, but that’s kind of what I’m afraid about with this project. What we’re trying to capture is just the simple emotional connection to nature that everybody can have. It’s not a rich thing or a white thing. I’m scared of hip-hop in the outdoors just becoming a new entertainment trend.
SM: You just wanted to keep it more simple, right?
AY: Yeah. I told the guys that we’re not out there to entertain anyone. We’re just going out there to be in the woods and be ourselves.
SM: I’m wondering about who you think has influenced your filmmaking and photography?
AY: There’s no set way to succeed at anything, and I really used to look up to a lot of people and analyze how they work. But what I’ve seen is that you can’t rely on someone else’s story to work for you, too. I kind of just do what works for me and don’t worry about what other people do.
Let’s say your favorite rapper is Drake and, on his songs, he says this is how you succeed and this is how you do that. He’s telling that to millions of people who are gonna try the same thing but it’s impossible to know how he’s really thinking and doing things. In my opinion, you gotta figure out how to do it the best way that works for you. I’m not even in any film classes, I just like shooting videos.
SM: What do you study?
AY: I’m a double major in evolutionary biology and business. When it comes to film, I don’t think it ever works when you try to imitate other peoples’ work.
I do love to listen to Adele and Beyonce though. I really love music. I guess I do look up to the music artists that I really like.
SM: When you go to Olympic National Park with these guys, what’s your biggest fear?
AY: At Olympic, I’m not really nervous about anything, but we’re also heading up to the more remote alpine wilderness of North Cascades National Park. It’s on the boarder of Canada, and it’s a super cool mountainous park. What I’m scared of in North Cascades National Park is the Grizzly Bears. There are no bears in Olympic National Park, and I don’t have any experience with Grizzlies. We are gonna have bear spray and get advice from some people up near there. It’s scary for me because I’ve worked around black bears, but Black bears and grizzly bears are in two different categories.
I’m also kind of expecting the tensions between Namaste and his producer Keegan to flare while we’re out there. What I’m planning to do is to film 24/7 and just keep a camera on these guys. This is gonna be a tough mental trip for them, and they’ll really have to work together out there to survive. So, I guess I’m not scared about that because I actually think it’ll be pretty interesting content…
Check out Ani’s project at tysounds.com and his campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/exposure-film-project-camping-diversity#/.
Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. Follow him on Twitter @Sagafanta.