Two photographers look at the viewfinder of a camera during the Open Aperture workshop
open aperture
No one can better tell the story of an underrepresented group's experience better than those directly affected. With guiding and rigging support by The Mountain Guides, the Open Aperture Photo Clinic sponsors six participants to join Mountain Hardwear ambassador Nikki Smith for a photography workshop to help sharpen their skills and empower them to document their respective groups. Because equality in outdoor recreation starts with visibility, but visibility requires the right tools... Why not a camera?

In the late 90s, I stood in an outdoor gear shop, flipping through the pages of equipment catalogs. One page made me stop and take notice. Renowned Japanese rock climber Yuji Hirayama looked calm and collected as he finger-tip jammed up a Yosemite Valley test-piece. At the time, I didn’t know what was so intriguing about this image, but I was instantly obsessed. I knew that I wanted to do what he was doing. From that day, I devoured everything I could about climbing, sought out the nearest climbing gym, and have managed to build a career and lifestyle in the outdoor and climbing community.

Not that long ago, I was recounting how I got into climbing and what sparked my interest and told this story. I was probed as to why that moment was different than any other introduction to climbing. Surely I had seen rock climbing in magazines, movies, or on the news, but how was this moment different? And then it struck me like a ton of bricks. I saw myself in Yuji.

I was born to parents of different countries and races: a Thai mother and a white, American father. Being a military family, we moved around a lot in the U.S., requiring me to quickly assimilate in places like Georgia, Kansas, and Kentucky. I didn’t run into many people who looked like me. In this pre-digital time, when I saw Yuji, he was one of the few Asians that I had ever seen put on a pedestal. Perhaps seeing him made it easier for me to imagine that I could climb like him (I can’t, by the way).

Last summer, I was chatting with Mountain Hardwear ambassador Nikki Smith about how we could support underrepresented people and communities in the outdoor and climbing spaces. We, as a brand, knew there was (and still is) far more work to be done and were conscious about bringing awareness and advocacy to these folks. And I, as an individual member of our community, felt strongly about using whatever influence I might have to take action. A large part of my career has revolved around showing climbing through print and digital media and needed to create an opportunity to show people of color and marginalized groups participating in the outdoors. But the “right” way to do this is debatable. We don’t presume to hold the answers, but wanted to be thoughtful in our approach. As much as possible, we try to show real, authentic experiences through the point of view of our community and document them. So, rather than simply hosting casting calls for climbers of the right “skin tone,” we wanted to create a valuable experience for its participants.

As those conversations evolved, the MHW Photo Workshop, led by Nikki, took shape. Our goal was to add value to underrepresented communities and organizations by providing photography skills to help document their stories and showcase their talents. The photo clinic took place over several days in September of last year, with additional guiding and rigging support by The Mountain Guides. Mountain Hardwear offered six all-expenses-paid scholarships to the program, with the course curriculum developed and taught by Nikki herself.

In reflecting on the photos and words expressing the participant’s experiences, they all point towards a positive program. But the most important thing that we learned is just that… It was a single workshop. A step in the right direction but not an entire journey of inclusivity for Black, Indigenous, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ in the outdoors and climbing. By providing more visibility, I can only hope that it will inspire, motivate, and make personal connections to the outdoors and climbing, as it did with me.
portrait of Mountain Hardwear Brand Marketing Director,
Matt Burbach, holding a film reel.
Matt Burbach, he/him/his

Brand Marketing Director

Mountain Hardwear

portrait of Mountain Hardwear Brand Marketing Director,
Matt Burbach
IMAGE BY TREVOR RILEY

As those conversations evolved, the MHW Photo Workshop, led by Nikki, took shape. Our goal was to add value to underrepresented communities and organizations by providing photography skills to help document their stories and showcase their talents. The photo clinic took place over several days in September of last year, with additional guiding and rigging support by The Mountain Guides. Mountain Hardwear offered six all-expenses-paid scholarships to the program, with the course curriculum developed and taught by Nikki herself.

In reflecting on the photos and words expressing the participant’s experiences, they all point towards a positive program. But the most important thing that we learned is just that… It was a single workshop. A step in the right direction but not an entire journey of inclusivity for Black, Indigenous, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ in the outdoors and climbing. By providing more visibility, I can only hope that it will inspire, motivate, and make personal connections to the outdoors and climbing, as it did with me.
three climbers on a rock wall during the open aperture photo clinic
why open aperture matters