A giant picture of a 9-year-old kid is projected onto the east wall of Denver’s flagship REI. He’s wearing a backwards hat, a popped collar and a smug look on his face, the word “Phresh” scrawled across the screen in ’90s Nintendo-style font. College freshman Ani Yahzid stands just below it, in front of a room full of outdoor recreation professionals working to increase diversity in the outdoors.
Turning to face the crowd he says, “That’s me, 10 years ago, and back then there were three things I thought were cool: whatever my friends thought was cool, whatever my friends did and Lil’ Wayne. So, I’m curious, as a group of people here because you want to get kids like that outdoors, what would you do to make it happen?”
Dozens of hands shoot up into the air naming off all kinds of elaborate schemes almost self-defeating in their complexity:
“Get Lil’ Wayne to make a music video outdoors!” someone shouts.
“Start a citywide program to bus kids from inner cities to parks!” says another.
“Kids look up to their teachers,” one guy yells. “If we can get their teachers to advocate for the outdoors then they’ll want to get outdoors too.”
To this one, Yahzid can’t help but laugh. Just a week earlier he’d said that if there’s one thing that will never be cool, it’s whatever adults and teachers do.
“I don’t want to get kids outdoors, I want kids to want to get outdoors,” he’d said. “People overthink things and get ahead of themselves, wanting to know about impacts and gear and what we’ll do next, but none of that is really what this is about. What I am trying to do is super simple — it’s about exploration, art, adventure and literally nothing else.”
But somewhere along the line the project got complicated — probably because Yahzid, looking for support and funding, started massaging his Exposure Film Project as an attempt to “diversify the face of the outdoors by encouraging more multicultural urban youth to get outside.” Yahzid meant the description to be bland and generic, but has since found the phrasing to tempt people to politicize and racialize his project. So, patiently and repeatedly, Yahzid finds himself explaining that the Exposure Film Project isn’t about black or white, rich or poor.
“There will be no, ‘Hey! We’re black and we love nature!’ anywhere in this project,” he says. “I don’t like to think about that type of stuff. In fact, I think demographics separate us more than they bring us together. This race stuff, it’s just negative and it’s not significant to me or to this project. In my opinion, kids already have this passion for nature inside of them — yes, all kids. All I’m trying to do is validate that they think it’s dope because I do too.”
At its heart, Yahzid’s project is a documentary-in-the-making about what happens when two people who have never left Atlanta spend two weeks outdoors in Washington’s Olympic National Park. Yahzid will act as a behind-the-scenes guide, making sure everyone has the right gear, enough food and a reasonable expectation of safety, but he’ll spend the bulk of the two-week trip silently behind the camera, letting the guys choose their own adventures. His goal is to create the conditions for them to develop a deep and authentic relationship with nature on their own terms and to capture that in a film that can connect to people back home in Atlanta.
Yahzid’s quest to communicate what is so cool about the outdoors is not new but dates back to his early elementary school days. He remembers being a kid who was glued to the TV, watching hour after hour of made-for-TV documentaries on Animal Planet. He would sit there enthralled by the footage of creatures roaming their natural habitats while his sisters and cousins grumbled and moaned about being subjected to his decidedly uncool fascinations. Luckily, it was only a matter of time before “nature lifted off the screen and became real.”
He tells the story easily and fondly. He was just 6 years old when he went on his first hike in the North Georgia mountains at the southernmost tip of the Appalachian Range. His parents, busy working and taking care of the family, had enrolled him in a Boys and Girls Club that had, coincidentally, just starting taking kids hiking on Saturdays.
He remembers his first trip well — it was still dark outside when his parents woke him up at 5 a.m. to get him to the bus by 6. He vaguely remembers the groggy, two-hour bus ride along steepening roads. Vividly, he remembers the joy of stepping out into nature for the very first time: the smell of the humid forest air, the quiet he had never known before and the coolness of the snow, the first he’d ever seen, collecting at the top of a mountain.
“Until that trip, I never realized how different it is to be in nature than it is to look at it on a screen,” Yahzid says. “I wanted to go home and tell everyone all about it, but it turns out it’s really hard to explain.”
You still hear the frustration in his voice and that’s because still, to this day, he is plagued by what is lost in translation. But, just as it torments him, it also inspires him.
Pointing to his bag on the floor, he talks about the first camera he ever had, one he still carries around with him to this day, a small Sony digital point and shoot. It has this super macro function that made it so that young Yahzid could get up really close to something, like a chipmunk or a flower, and take a picture.
“No matter what I took a picture of or how it turned out, I would always think it was amazing,” he says, throwing his head back in laughter. “Which is funny because looking back, it was just a bunch of shots of birds so far away you could barely make them out in the branches.”
Sure, the camera has its limits, but it did enough to keep him not only interested, but increasingly curious. So, when on a longer trip, a guide brought along his own camera, a DSLR with a zoom lens, Yahzid was mesmerized. He watched as the guide focused his lens on a bird in a bush and snapped a picture, which he showed him seconds later.
“That picture changed my life,” Yahzid says. “In my pictures, birds were just these little dots, but in his the bird filled the entirety of the frame in a detail that I had only seen before on TV. Looking at the picture more closely, I saw that the bird had a berry in his mouth, a detail that neither the guide nor I meant to capture. It was mind-opening.”
Ten years later, Yahzid still seems just as captivated by that berry as he was as a kid, as if it represents the entirety of his artistic quest. There was something concrete about a berry nestled in a beak, a detail he could capture that could help him communicate the grandeur of what he was experiencing. With that picture, Ani Yahzid the artist was born, and for the rest of his life he would experience nature through the lens so that he could share what he loved with people back home.
Now a freshman at the University of Colorado studying biology and business, Yahzid spends most of his free time walking around outside taking pictures and shooting film. In October 2016 he was out at Chautauqua when he came across an adult black bear. He could feel his heart racing as he zoomed in with his Canon DSLR, taking shot after shot, making sure to capture this, his first encounter with a mountain predator. Later that night, he uploaded a video clip of “Chunky” the black bear to his Instagram feed and 1,500 miles away in Atlanta, his childhood friend, hip hop artist Namaste, couldn’t believe his eyes.
Although the two hadn’t talked for years, Namaste didn’t hesitate to reach out to Yahzid. “I was in the market for someone to make visuals for my song, ‘Dark Time,’ and when I saw that bear video I knew he was the guy,” he says. “I liked that he was in a whole other field, that he doesn’t make videos for artists, he’s more extreme than that. Plus, he’s an artist who sees the natural beauty in an area and has a way of drawing attention to the little things with the angles he uses and the way he edits. He’s got that thing you just can’t teach.”
Namaste isn’t a trained artist either — he says his poetry is something innate. He’s always been observant of nature, attracted to its little details, just like Yahzid. With so much in common, the two were eager to work together, and Yahzid booked a flight to Atlanta to shoot their first video. Namaste had the perfect idea for the location — a little piece of nature where he frequently wrote.
“My friend has this big backyard with a patio overlooking a golf course so you get these open views, but also lots of trees,” Namaste says. “There’s this slick little stream, like a current of water had passed through, nothing too big, but you could tell it was something water had carved. I like to write out there, especially in the fall, almost winter, because the leaves were changing and falling. I would just sit there and write, all day.”
Yahzid gawfs at the description. “It’s not nature,” he says. “There were buildings in every shot so we just couldn’t use it. It was way too urban. But, that’s when we started playing with the idea of what it would be like to film Namaste making art in some real nature, and so the Exposure Film Project was born.”
Like Yahzid, Namaste and his producer, Keylan (who will also be joining in on the trip) both attribute their initial interest in the natural world to pictures, specifically the pre-installed wallpaper on their MacBooks, and are eager to experience it for themselves. Understandably, they’re also nervous, about smelling bad and being out in the cold, but mostly about just stepping into the unknown.
“I’m anxious, but mostly excited,” Namaste says. “I feel like people are so numb: Where is the excitement for the things that surround you? We are on a planet floating in outer space with a bunch of stuff that other planets don’t have. Why wouldn’t you want to experience this? If you really think about it, you’re alive for such a short period of time. Do you want to live or do you want to just waste away in the matrix?”
A bit more quiet and to the point, Keelan adds that he’s interested in what it’s like to connect to the earth. “We have gotten so detached from the natural world and that worries me,” he says. “Even if I don’t totally understand why.”
Eventually, Yahzid will have to sit down and sift through the footage to compile three short films about the experience. He’s already in conversation with various film festivals about potential screenings to be supplemented with social media campaigns focused on audiences in Atlanta. But, for now, everyone is concentrating on getting ready for their June trip to Washington, trying to enjoy the adventure as it unfolds, and making a last ditch fundraising effort through their ongoing Indiegogo campaign.
Of course, Yahzid made a video for the campaign, the final minute an extended scene of him staring blankly into the camera. At first he tries to write it off, saying he was just trying to find something else to say, searching for the perfect last words. But then he takes a little more responsibility for his editing decision.
“I guess I left it in the video because it’s a very authentic moment of uncertainty and that’s what this trip is all about,” he says. “My goal is to capture those sort of true emotions, the stuff that people normally try to hide, what people don’t want you to see. When you’re outdoors, it doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or just some guy, we’re all equally humbled when we sit around a fire under the night sky.”