Ani Yahzid on Celebrating Outdoor Diversity Through Videography
Hear from Boulder-based videographer, Ani Yahzid, as he talks about an urban upbringing and the experiences that brought him to the work he’s doing now—currently, a project called “Nature RX for All.”
Q. Ani, can you give me a brief overview of what you do and how the outdoors is connected to that?
A. Yeah, so I make videos, mostly for brands. How is the outdoors connected to that? I like going on hikes, and I like to experiment with my camera, so I go out and shoot mostly in the outdoors. Every once in awhile an outdoor brand wants to make a video, but most of the stuff I do outside is just for fun.
Q. So, are your goals in videography more outdoor-oriented, or are they more social impact-oriented. Where do those goals lie?
A. My goal in videography, first and foremost, is to make a good living. That can come whether I’m shooting for REI or CU Medical Campus, or something less exciting. It would be nice to get more work in the outdoor space, but other than that, I’m good with where I’m at now.
Q. Digging more into that love of the outdoors that you have, where does that originate? Where are from, what was that upbringing like, and how is it connected to the outdoors?
A. I grew up in a very urban environment in Atlanta where there are not a lot of outdoor activities. There was no going out hiking on the weekend. My mom didn’t do that, and none of my family members did that, so there were not a lot of opportunities. Now, living in Boulder, everyone is outdoorsy and every billboard you see is someone with a backpack. It’s not the same in Atlanta.
But I did get into the outdoors. I really loved watching Nat Geo animal documentaries, and I was always interested in animals and nature. I used to go to this Boys & Girls Club while I was still in Atlanta. My mom would drop us off and we would go play basketball for like 5 hours while she was still at work. But then, the Sierra Club started hosting these ICO (Inner City Outdoors) meetings where they would come on Saturday mornings and take us hiking in the North Georgia Mountains. That’s when I realized there’s so much to explore, and even in Georgia, I didn’t know those mountains were there. But I was always excited to go on those trips, and that’s where I got into hiking and exploring. Then I went to a boarding high school in Colorado Springs, and that’s when I really delved into the mountains.
Q. How did these experiences inform your videography style and the stories that you choose to tell?
A. Well, I started with photography, and everything that I was shooting was nature. Then a few years ago, I started shooting video, and of course, if I’m going to play with my camera, I’m going to go outside. So all of my learning was out on a hike or out in nature, and that informed how I shot. I learned to shoot documentary-style, like run-and-gun stuff, out in the woods, and that’s what I strive to keep doing and get paid to do.
Q. Can you think of any specific experiences in your life that have been crucial in shaping your style or goals as a videographer?
A. Okay, so on these ICO trips, there was one trip where they took us to South Georgia, and we’d camp for a week. And this was a special trip—they only took 12 kids from the Boys & Girls Club—and I was lucky they picked me. So, they’d drive us to South Georgia, take us for five days of camping, and give us all these little Sony point-and-shoot cameras—which was absolutely amazing to me; and then they let us keep the cameras after.
One time, while we were on a hike, the kids had their cameras, and the guide had a Canon DSLR for wildlife photography. On the hike, there was this blue jay eating berries on a bush, and my camera had like a 25 mm lens. I took a picture of the whole bush, so if you looked close enough, maybe you could see the bird. And then the guide gets a picture of the bird that completely fills the frame and shows the bird eating a berry. I was so amazed because I had always watched these animal documentaries and never knew that they could actually be shot and never knew how they were shot. Then seeing this guy so easily and casually get this photo—I remember thinking, “What in the world just happened in front of me?” When he showed me that, it was the spark. After that, I kept playing with my camera, then my mom’s friend gave me his old camera, and it snowballed from there.
Q. What your stories do you like to tell in the social impact realm of videography?
A. Growing up, these ICO trips were my first exposure to the outdoors, and I feel privileged. There were hundreds of kids that went to the Boys & Girls Club, and only 12 kids every weekend went on these trips. It was always the same 12 kids because we were the only ones that really gave it a shot. Once we went the first time, we loved it so much that we just kept going, and no one else wanted to give it a try. We were privileged in the sense that we had the opportunity to experience the outdoors, and no one else I knew from my community growing up was doing that. So I’ve always thought the opportunity to see it and know that it’s an option is super important. It’s not for everyone. But for people like me, if I hadn’t had that experience then I would have missed out on everything that I’m doing today. Everyone deserves that window to spark curiosity.
So that’s what I’m passionate about, and it relates to the work that I’m doing now in videography. There’s a guy in town here in Boulder—his name is Justin Bogardis—and in 2015 he released this spoof drug commercial called “Nature RX.” The message was to use nature to fix your problems, and it’s hilarious. It ended up getting 40 million views online. So I’m working with Justin now on a new Nature RX called “Nature RX for All” that celebrates people like Bethany at Brown Girls Climb and Rue Mapp at Outdoor Afro.
For example, Brown Girls Climb hosted an event a month ago, and I don’t climb but I went to this event, and I guess I learned how to climb. That was my first time climbing, and now I get out with my friends every once in a while.
I was talking to Rue Mapp the other day, and she was saying that if what we care about is getting people outdoors, we can do that at a community level—at the ground level. We don’t need brands to okay it or even help from the industry to get our own communities outdoors. What we’re trying to do with this video is celebrate the people that are really on the ground getting more people out.
Q. What would you say success looks like for this project?
A. A lot of views, a lot of exposure, and getting more people into these organizations that we’re representing. So success is measured by online metrics but also on the impact it has for the groups that we’re showcasing. We see it as this convening force to bring these groups together for a purpose. There are so many now that have the same mission, and we want to create a collaborative space for them.
Q. Have you worked on anything else in this realm of diversity and equity in the outdoors in the past, or do you have any similar projects planned for the future?
A. I worked on this video to bring two hip-hop artists out on their first backpacking trip in Washington. We shot the video and put it out, but I tried too hard to force this story on them, so it wasn’t super authentic, and that was one of the failures of the project. They knew exactly what I wanted, so it made it hard for them to act authentically. When we came back, we did an interview talking about the whole experience, and they loved the trip. Two months after we got back, I got a text from one of the guys asking when we’re going out next, so they came out to Colorado and went backpacking near Brainard Lake (I couldn’t go because I was working). It definitely made an impact on their love for the outdoors. So the impact was there, but the foundations of filmmaking and storytelling were iffy. It would have been better if I hadn’t brought the camera at all.
Q. What kind of barriers have you faced in breaking into the industry, and how have you overcome them?
A. It’s funny, there are a lot of different sections in the industry. You could shoot for REI and make an adventure documentary, or you could go the commercial route which is more lucrative. The one thing that holds true in every section is the barriers. They’re definitely there, but they’re not concrete. So much is based on relationships and reputation. I’m 20, and I’m still in school, and no matter what I create, I’m not going to get paid as much as someone who’s been doing this for a while. It’s about the way you appear. When I talk to other filmmakers, it’s like smoke and mirrors. Everyone is trying to appear like a bigger brand or a bigger production company. There’s no straightforward way to break in. It’s like a puzzle that no one is going to figure out the same way. But saying that is also very democratizing because you really have to work hard to get where you’re at. Only the best can actually make a living off of it. You can’t just get out of film school (though I’m not in film school) and expect to make a living.
See Ani Yahzid’s work here: www.aniyahzid.com