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October 11, 2020

Experiences as a Black Outdoor Photographer

Interview by
Joel Fuller
Tsalani Lassiter

is an accomplished storyteller, photographer, and instructor. He works to connect people with nature, inspire conservation, and diversify the outdoors. He has taken a more prominent stance this year to share his experiences of the unfathomable realities and situations he’s faced being a black photographer in the outdoors. We sat down with him to to hear about these experiences, about his mission to strengthen the voice of black people and people of color in wild places, and his work to give a platform and voice to diverse people working in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math) allowing them to be the role models he never had growing up.

“It’s more of a responsibility for me to say something about my experiences now more than ever since I have so many”.


How were you introduced to the outdoors and what led you down a path of outdoor photography?

My interest and love for the outdoors has really changed over the years since I was a kid. One thing I didn’t appreciate enough growing up was my mom’s connection to nature. She’s from Peru and grew up living amongst the environment there, living in a clay home in the mountains where she developed a deep connection with nature. I think that connection is a big reason why when she came to America she pushed me to visit wild places like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, or Northern California - to share this passion with me. At 12, tennis took over my life until I was about 19. I played at a national level, trained 5 hours a day and didn’t have much time to get outside. This is where I was first introduced to racism and eventually the reason why I stopped playing entirely. I used to get called everything you could ever imagine a black person can be called as young as 12 or 13. The ‘N’ word, monkey, everything. As I travelled across the US to play it got worse and this made me realize that most of the United States just wasn’t for me - that I needed to stay where I felt most comfortable. Where I grew up, out west, in the Bay Area, so I went from tennis to becoming a software engineer because it felt safe. I always picked things that felt safe in life, not things that I would’ve chosen if race didn’t have such a strong hold on me.

Oriko (Tsalani's adventure buddy) lays in the grass at Kiva beach in Lake Tahoe

I was finally able to do what I always wanted to do, what I dreamed about as a kid, it was finally possible. 

When I was young I really thought I wanted to grow up and become a scientist or a marine biologist, studying whales or maybe polar bears. I like the cold a lot, the ocean or the arctic was always on my mind. I hadn’t realized at the time that this interest in wildlife would become a passion in photography later in life. Society made me think “I’m black”, that I'm supposed to be a basketball or football player, and live in the inner city. Even though finding something in the outdoors is what I wanted to do, the world I grew up in made me feel like it was just not for me. Not until I was older, when I was a software engineer, when I had money, living in Silicon Valley did I realize that I should be doing things in life I really love. One of the first things I did was get an Alaskan malamute - a cold weather furry dog. The dog wanted to spend time outside and so did I. I got a Jeep and we started adventuring somewhere outside every weekend, exploring unique places, and letting the dog run free. When you’re amongst these beautiful spaces, you just wanna start capturing the moment. So I bought a camera, which I never had enough money for. I got reconnected with nature when I had enough money and free time to do so. I was finally able to do what I always wanted to do, what I dreamed about as a kid, it was finally possible. 

Looking for hot springs while exploring the Eastern Sierras

What’s a story behind one of your favorite images you can share with us? 

I love photographing bears at different times of the year. Every year I travel to Lake Tahoe in the fall to photograph them feeding during the salmon spawning season. I sleep in my van, I wake up in the morning, walk about 4 or 5 miles along some creeks close to Lake Tahoe, looking for bears. You wanna get out there at dawn or dusk, because that’s the best time to see the bears and photograph them. Most other photographers stick to this one small section, but I like to walk the entire area to find the bears. You start recognizing patterns around where they are. The day I took this photo it was about 9:30am and there were no bears to be seen. The sun was basically up and I thought to myself that this may be a “bust of a day” and decided to walk my dog and get my exercise in. I went back to my van, got my dog and headed back out along the trail, all of the sudden there was a bear with 3 cubs. The cubs climbed up a tree, the mom took a defensive stance (and my dog did the same). The bear started heading towards me and my dog towards the bear. I couldn’t believe the situation that was going down right now and my bear spray was in my backpack. I was thinking to myself, "Okay do I turn and run? Do I take the time to get my bear spray out?” What felt like an hour was probably only 30 seconds. The bear did a little bluff charge and I decided to back off dragging my dog with me. We leave and I contemplate if I should go back with my camera. Once I’m back at my van, I see all these other photographers in the ‘safe zone’ and they ask me if I’ve seen any bears. I’m like “Yes actually there’s a mom and 3 cubs just a mile up the way”. They ask “Will you take us?” It’s interesting you know, I don’t think they necessarily liked me beforehand, I usually think it has to do with me looking out of place and my race, but on that day all of the sudden I’m their best friend. So we went back as a group, the bear was still there, upside down scratching its belly, chilling for about 20 mins, lounging almost like a human, it was an amazing encounter. This experience had so many things going on, my dog, excitement, race, and wildlife.

With a belly full of salmon this mother bear laid out very human like, scratched her belly and took a nap.

What sparked you to become a more prominent voice for diversity?

I think the movement we've had this year has made me really question things. It’s more of a responsibility for me to say something about my experiences now more than ever since I’ve had so many. I think some people are very unaware of what people go through, because they haven’t experienced racism and it’s hard for them to understand or have the notion that these things actually happen. Since they haven’t experienced it, they can’t believe it. So I thought it was my moment and responsibility to stand up in the world of photography and conservation and tell everyone things aren’t all cherry in the outdoor world. I posted a photo on Instagram with a very detailed list of some of the things I have gone through and experienced. I knew people were gonna reach out and thought there would be a lot of comments, but had no idea that post would explode so much. I felt like it was an obligation, if I didn’t speak up, it was a disservice to me and all the other people of color that might want to get into photography and the outdoor industry for that matter. I am not even that old, but sometimes I think it’s too late for me to make a difference. I have to stand up with my voice for the next generation. If something doesn’t change because I didn't say something then it’s on me.

Tsalani working with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant and Maryland's Department of National Resources to reintroduce bear cubs to their dens.

The photo you mentioned received a lot of attention. Would you be open to sharing a few of the racist experiences you’ve gone through being a black outdoor photographer?

That post was actually 3x longer, but Instagram limits the size of a caption, so I had to start cutting out experiences. That gives you an idea of how many racial situations I’ve gone through. Every time I’ve gotten pulled over it sticks with me, but there are two specific times I am thinking about right now. The first one took place on the same street where I grew up. I was raised in a predominately black community in San Francisco at the top of a prominent hill in the area. Everything down low is like a favela in Brazil, cheaper housing, projects, cheap apartments – not that these houses where I grew up are amazing at the top – they just happened to be the only black community near the top of this hill. So I’m on that street, it’s about 20 years later now, and the neighbourhood has really changed. My wife and I are sitting in my van looking out across the city. She’s asian and hasn’t experienced all the things I have in my life. All of the sudden we get a knock on the van window, we look up and we’re surrounded by cops all with their guns drawn. Here I am with my wife, eating Thai food, overlooking the city and their guns are out already. I tell them that my house is less than a football field away and they did not care. They needed to see my ID and verify where I live, they needed this and that – and everything I have says that address where my Dad lives down the street. I think the conversation should be over, but each cop keeps interrogating me, and I keep having to repeat myself. More and more cops show up - eventually there must’ve been 10 cop cars and over 20 cops. My Dad shows up from his house and says, “What the fuck, this is ridiculous” - but the cops now think they have an aggressive black man approaching them and so they grab him and throw him around a bit. He’s pissed thinking some cops are going to shoot his son. After 20 minutes of this, everything settled down and we all got to go home. It seemed ridiculous that I got interrogated on the same street I grew up my entire life because new people have moved into the neighbourhood. The cops were called on me because “There’s no reason a black man should be sitting in his van on a street corner” - “He’s probably out there stealing something or casing houses (picking houses to rob) and he’s gonna fill up his van with stolen property”.

The other moment is when I was in the Tetons of Wyoming with my wife. We’re chilling in the van when I see a storm coming in that’s worth taking some pictures of. I leave her for a little walk to take some shots and when I come back, I can see the van is surrounded by 5 cop cars. I started thinking to myself “What the hell has happened to my wife, is she okay?” When I get back the problem is not her: the problem is me. The cops have gotten a report that I’ve kidnapped a girl. I say, “No she’s my wife” - and she says, “Tsalani is my husband”. They accuse me of lying and don’t give two shits about our story. They proceed to separate us and say, “She's too afraid to talk”. Another 15 minutes of me explaining myself and they still won’t believe either of us. Finally they left us alone. So often in these situations you have to go beyond common sense to explain the situation. Sometimes when you’re black it feels like you're guilty until proven innocent -  not innocent until proven guilty. 

Van Life in the Eastern Sierras

These things happen. With all the stuff I have dealt with in my life, I’ve had to learn certain ways to deal with it. It’s pretty sad, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I think about my dog, or any dog for that matter, they’re wild animals but we’ve trained them to be pets and domesticated them. It almost feels like black people or people of color have been domesticated too, we’ve learned and now have to live in a certain way. If we stray from that all of the sudden we’re a bad dog, but maybe the dog just wants to be free. I feel like that, I feel domesticated – there are places I can and can’t go, there are things I can and can’t say. If I walk into a store, I should probably take my hands out of my pockets so that someone doesn’t think that I am stealing something. When I was writing that post, it made me really think about these things and realize that it’s not right. That I have all these things in the back of my mind all the time and I’m not at all free. I have no idea what that feels like, but I do know that what I feel isn’t free. A lot of people don’t understand this burden, that there is always something that might happen unless you do things a certain way. Maybe you go to jail or maybe you lose your life, that kind of sucks.

Thank you for sharing. I have that same love for the outdoors and photography and, man, I have some tears in my eyes doing this interview right now. I’ve never had to think about these things. I feel awful that anyone would ever have to constantly be conscious of all of this, to not ever feel free.

Ya I know, it’s weird. I know it’s pretty deep. If people hear this, they might be like - woah I never thought about that, but it’s true.

(Left) Rodeo Ramontay black cowboy poses over this horse and saddle (right) showing off his horsemanship

After this movement has become stronger, is there anything you’d want to say to the people who have called the cops on you if you had the opportunity to? 

Honestly no. In those situations I probably told the cops everything that I wanted to say. You can call me fortunate or whatever. But by being domesticated in this society I have learned that there are certain ways for a black man to act ‘properly’ around cops. I am already thinking that I gotta take my hands out of my pockets, speak in a certain voice, take a non-aggressive stance, I recorded the experiences, I said everything I needed to say and it never makes a difference in those moments. There’s probably nothing more I could say. I’d probably say the same things, “Hey, relax, we’re all people regardless of our skin color”. Just because one person is black doesn’t mean they’re different - just like one dog is bigger or furrier, or whatever doesn’t mean it’s a more aggressive dog. Some people might argue that if you see a rottweiler, a pitbull, or a German Shepard, they're more aggressive dogs. Sure they might be a bit more aggressive, but we are not dogs, we are people. People need to re-think and know that it doesn’t matter what someone looks like. We need to use our brains and treat one another the same way you would treat anyone else.

Jessica Braunstein measures the width of the antlers on a bull elk in Great Smoky Mountain NP

What importance do you place on minorities and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)?

It’s very important to me. If I had more role models growing up, I would probably be a marine biologist right now. If I saw more black people on Nat Geo growing up, I would have seen more possibilities for myself - but all I saw was black people playing basketball. I didn’t see black people as lawyers, scientists, or doctors. My work promoting diversity in STEM is a self-funded project of mine. I have a partner that I am working closely with, Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, she’s an inspiration for me, and someone who has inspired me to join the fight. She’s involved in some of the projects and I photograph her a lot as well. When travelling to photograph these people, it’s all coming out of my own pocket.I think it’s very important for me to help give a platform and voice to these inspiring individuals. I don’t necessarily want to be the person on TV, but I want to help someone else be that person on TV. To be that role model I never had.

Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant taking a bear cub passed to her and preparing to place it back in the den

How do you think society can encourage black people or people of color to be in the outdoors?

From my perspective it isn’t how we can encourage people, it’s how we can not discourage people. I believe we are all pretty privileged in America with clean water, internet, good roads, etc. For the most part, we have higher standards of living than those living in third world countries. We have access to see amazing places here. Now more than ever, (especially with Instagram) everyone can be scrolling through and say, “I want to go there”. But if you really think about what it takes to go explore these wild places outside, it’s easy to get discouraged. Maybe you reach out to people and they say, “Oh you don’t have the right gear for that” or “Hey, we aren’t geotagging this spot, you need to spend 10 years proving yourself in the outdoors before I let you know where this secret watering hole is”. I think a lot of those people are actually discouraging people, a lot of us have hopes and dreams, we’re scrolling through and would love to go there, but then when you really look to see how it’s done and what you need, you get discouraged.

I think the main thing would be to make access to information easier. I hate the fact that you need to get permits to go to so many places now. People will argue that it’s to protect these places or whatever, but I think it’s part of the system that keeps people of color or poor people from getting to these places. This all used to be indigenous land, and at some point in time these systems were put in place to make it harder for a lot of people to do things and made it only accessible to those who are privileged. You know if you don’t have a computer, access to fast internet, or if you’re forced to work at 5am everyday to provide for your family - how are you gonna be able to access that permit registration that opens at 6am when it goes on sale? All these things make it harder for people to access. So you’re forced to stay in the popular spots, the main loop in Yosemite, or just the lake in and around Tahoe.

Images from Tsalani's Veins of Society Project

I have a project called Veins of Society. It’s about people you would now consider to be ‘essential workers’, but these are people in the service industry that basically allow society to run the way we think it should. Janitors, bank tellers, people working at a gas station, people making minimum wage, waking up at 4am so that Starbucks can be open for you. Veins of Society and People of Color in STEM are kind of my two lifetime projects. I want to put some books together and continue to tell their stories. I would like to stray away from photos and start making mini-docs, 1 or 2 minutes long, what’s life like to be a housekeeper at a hotel for example. I am friends with a lot of people here in the Lake Tahoe area and they feel like the outdoors is not for them. They get paid minimum wage, they can’t afford the gear to go into the backcountry, they see a waterfall on Instagram, and people tell them you’re not in good enough shape yet or they need more experience. Well how do you get enough experience when you work 6 days a week, when you get one day off and someone tells you that you should just stick to the local trail around the city?

Jessica Braunstein places a tag on a Bull Elk in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The tag will allow for remote identification and less handling of the animal in the future of her study.

For people wanting to be an ally to black people or people of color in the outdoors how should you go about doing so?

Share information as much as you can. If someone reaches out to you, help them out or maybe even offer to bring them along. “You wanna go? I’ll take you!” I think companies need to step up more too. There are a lot of really great projects that could be funded or supported to get more people outside. If we create enough POC role models the inspiration will spread like a wildfire, but we need to get that wildfire started in the first place. It’s still pretty hard to find these role models, to find these people that companies are putting front and center. I want to see more ambassadors that are people of color. To be an ally right now, you need to put more POC front and center and let it happen naturally. 

If anyone is reading this, if you can be an ally, if you can help, reach out. I would love for more people to join this movement. I am on Instagram at @tsalani.

It’s beneficial to make the outdoors more accessible, knowledge more accessible, make experiences more accessible, so that we can hopefully all come together and the planet will be a better place. I think the conversation of getting people outside is bigger than race, it’s very important to get everyone outside and connected to nature.