After a three-year hiatus, Flylords sat down with Chad Brown. He is a U.S. Navy veteran, founder of Soul River, Inc., a photographer, a conservationist, and, most recently, an emerging leader in advocating for greater inclusivity in outdoor spaces. In addition to updating us on Soul River’s growth since 2017, Chad filled us in on how fly fishing has influenced his photography career. Additionally, he shared with us the feedback he has received since his article “Thoughts on the Killing of George Floyd” was picked up by Hatch magazine in June. Check out his comments and photography below!
Could you provide us with some background on yourself and Soul River, Inc.?
I’m the president and founder of Soul River Inc., which is a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon. The mission of the organization is to merge inner-city kids, focusing more or less on youth of color and diverse backgrounds, with disabled combat veterans on our public, fresh waters. We do these outings, for which we actually coined the name “deployments.”
We call them deployments because we identify places that are environmentally under threat and step in with an environmental justice mindset. We pair ourselves with conservation groups that are doing the good work of advocating for and protecting our public lands, wild spaces, and fresh waters. Through that collaboration, we build a curriculum [for each deployment]. Each curriculum is formed into a field guide [for the deployment location] and is based on awareness, advocacy, and the issues that are happening. That curriculum is passed on to the veterans, and the veterans use that curriculum to help engage our youth. Our ultimate goal at the end of the day is raising our youth from an urban to an outdoor mindset, bringing them into a leadership type of mindset, engaging with them, and fostering them into advocacy. We try to give them a sneak preview from a recreation standpoint, but we actually like to grow them into leaders and leaders for tomorrow. That’s really what it’s all about.
We then move from our deployment into congressional spaces. And when we go into these congressional spaces, veterans that have fostered these youth from our public lands and fresh waters have also given them a confidence platform that helped build them into young professionals and teach them how to advocate for our fresh waters and our wildlife in front of senators and congressmen. At the same time, this gives them an opportunity to connect the dots of career paths. So it’s not just about recreation and going fly fishing, but it’s also about getting to see that they, too, can play a strong, active role in a professional career that helps foster, support, and protect our wildlife and our public lands, and [they can] take on environmental justice issues.
I founded this organization based on my personal background. I’m a Navy veteran who served in the second phase of Desert Storm, and also Operation: Restore Hope in Somalia. I deal with mental illness, which is the PTSD that comes into play. At one point it took a big, huge chunk of my life, and took me into a downward spiral that left me homeless and dealing with my demons. Finding fly fishing from a friend is what brought me back into society. And so fly fishing played a big role in my life, and still does today. I use it as a tool of bringing communities together and forming relationships between youth and veterans, and that is how I founded Soul River Inc.
I have a professional background in art direction and creative direction—that’s what I went to school for—and am a photographer as well. It definitely plays a role in running a nonprofit. I live very comfortably within the creative-professional space between an art director and a photographer. I cut my teeth in New York and LA, working in and out of agencies, and I’ve done a lot of work over in Hong Kong fostering and building brands and launching new brands in Asia.
How has Soul River grown and developed since our last interview with you in 2017?
The organization has definitely gotten more publicity and unlocked more supporting funders, which is awesome, and it has a staff now. A lot of our youth are now youth leaders and a lot of them have graduated from Soul River, Inc. and gone on to study at places like Cornell and Florida A&M. One graduate is interning for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and another, her name is Karen, just landed an internship with Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon). So I think the growth of our youth leaders has been some really awesome change.
I am very grateful and thankful for many supporters out there, whether it’s brand companies, outdoor companies, fly fishing [companies], or independent funders. The organization has definitely been welcomed and nurtured by many folks with big hearts. I hope that continues moving forward. And we’re always in need of support and working for the growth of our organization, so donations are always welcomed, small or large. You can always go to the website and make a donation.
Also, when we put together our deployments, they take us to many different types of really off-the-grid destinations. And so being able to connect with people who can’t support us financially, but may have insight on areas that we go to, that’s also golden. It allows us to tap into their network or extract information about the area to help us be able to make our deployments as safe as possible. Being able to know people on the ground that can help navigate us, or point us in the right direction [is important]. From food to help getting to trailheads or whatever the case is, more information that we are able to attain the better off we are in making our deployment successful.
We’re always looking for volunteers, and the type of volunteers we look for are people who have backgrounds working with youth, especially at-risk kids and youth of color—that would be great. People who come with an education background and people who have science backgrounds also help. And then also, through those volunteers, we are always looking for conservation groups that are looking to open up their advocacy work and make that available for youth and veterans to step into those spaces to help elevate the work that they’re doing.
Soul River, Inc. now has a field educator. Her name is Marianna and she is constantly working on deployment curriculums. She is also always looking for opportunities for internships with conservation groups or other people who are willing to open up the doors for young people to step in and learn, whether by shadowing a biologist, a fishing guide, etc. She is always looking for opportunities for our Soul River, Inc. youth leaders who are looking into college.
If you know about any opportunities that Soul River, Inc.’s youth could participate in, you can reach out to Marianna at firstname.lastname@example.org
How has Fly Fishing impacted your photography career?
Fly fishing has given me a vehicle to mobilize youth and veterans through my organization. It’s given the seeds to help build the curriculum for going into our wild spaces, marching hard toward environmental justice and bringing veterans and young people into leadership. Through a lot of relationships and connections being on the water and on public lands, I have connected with indigenous communities and new partners. Where my photography steps in is that fly fishing has given me access to telling and capturing more rich stories from unheard voices on public lands, meaning our indigenous people.
So it’s really interesting because my interest, when I get behind the camera, used to be very commercial. But what really makes me pick up my camera now is being able to step intimately into indigenous populations, and being able to use my platform as an exhibition to help elevate their voices and help elevate the issues that are happening on their lands. Doing this in an exhibition form becomes an educational experience where we strategically position exhibitions beyond the conservation world and back into urban communities and mainstream communities to help engage and educate new folks and build their awareness on what’s happening on these public lands and fresh waters.
It recruits new people into a conservation space, saying, “Now that I learned, walking through this exhibition, about indigenous people and what’s happening, how can I help and what can I do to support?” And so that creates a stronger army from a conservation standpoint and from a political standpoint. When you want to pass a bill or when you want to collect signatures, now you’ve just opened up that awareness of new thoughts and new people that come in. Your army is stronger now.
This all spins from a creative angle of taking what’s there and shooting it in a story format, then bringing it into an exhibition. People can’t travel to point B, but if you bring [an exhibition] to their community—into their urban world—they can go learn. And they can see [the exhibition] and say, “You know what, I want to be part of that now.”
So fly fishing has definitely brought me into really awesome wild spaces. I mean, the sport of fly fishing, it tends to always sit in the beautiful outdoors and the lands of awe. But around those lands of awe, there are constant environmental injustices happening where only us anglers and our hunters and indigenous people know about it. Fly fishing has taken me on these journeys to spaces that are delicate and seeded me into indigenous communities. Yes, we’re recreating on the land, but [indigenous communities] subsist 100% from the land, so it opens up many other doors where I can tell that story through my lens.
What do you hope people experience when viewing your exhibitions?
It all starts in how you shoot and how you execute that will dictate [the viewer’s] experience. When you walk into my exhibition, the way I shoot my images starts off the beginning of your experience. I shoot, especially when I’m trying to hold and capture a story and capture the intimacy, really going with the “larger than life” feel. I love to allow lighting to help engage and tell my story, so using lighting is a big thing. There’s a thing that’s called—some people call it different things—but I call it a bending light. I use light in a way that captures the “larger than life” feel, but also the intimacy of the tone and the trauma, or the dramatic feeling that you become engulfed while looking at the image.
My goal at the beginning [of the exhibition] is approaching my subject with a “larger than life” style, allowing the artificial and the studio lighting to come into play. My exhibition pieces are large—they average anywhere between seven to ten feet tall. They’re wall-type pieces that are specifically and strategically large format to engulf you into their world. And to allow you, just for a minute, to be engaged as intimately as possible. When you come to that image, and you look at it, you become engulfed in the surroundings of the piece that you’re looking at. So it’s this opportunity to step into the world—literally step into the world—and feel it.
Do you have any current or upcoming exhibitions?
COVID has definitely put a cease on my exhibitions. But I had one that was going, which was the Vashraii K’oo Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Exhibition. That work is an exhibition that has been traveling around the United States. I’m working on a new exhibition with a conservation group called Pacific Rivers that will probably start shooting next month. It’s really unique. Pacific Rivers wants to raise awareness of our wild sanctuaries and raise money to help protect them. And so I started thinking, “How can we tell a story about wild sanctuaries?” At the same time, there has to be a vein to educate people about what a wild sanctuary is, especially beyond our conservation world.
So I thought of this idea where I said, “Okay, let’s identify five sanctuaries that you want to elevate and help protect, and share this to the public. Once we identify the five sanctuaries, I want to find five women. Each woman is going to represent shape, color, and size. And what we’ll do is have each woman step into each sanctuary, and I will shoot that woman. I’m going to hire a body paint artist, and have them paint half of each woman’s body from her feet, all the way through her waistline, of that environment, where she blends into that sanctuary. She becomes mother nature of that sanctuary, so the name of the exhibition will be Mother.”
I can’t wait to start shooting because it’s going to be really gorgeous—really beautiful. I’m going to shoot these women larger than life, half their body is going to be colored and painted by a really awesome body paint artist. It’s going to be really very tastefully done and very magical. It opens itself to really interesting narratives to help engage the public from a storytelling standpoint, but it also educates them how delicate and how special our sanctuaries are.
To check out his Vahraii K’oo Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Exhibition, click here.
Recently you have contributed to the conversation regarding inclusivity in outdoor spaces—what has that experience been like for you?
I’ve been speaking to a lot of these different issues, and it definitely comes from my experience with the article that I put out—it’s thoughts about George Floyd. What was impressive and inspiring was that Hatch Magazine actually picked it up. It kind of threw me off guard because I just didn’t think a magazine like that would actually pick it up, but it did. It actually went viral—a little bit over 200,000 views. It was literally all over and beyond the conservation world. I mean, literally, across the United States. And from that Keen Footwear picked this article up and repurposed it, and that went over 100,000 views. After that Columbia Sportswear picked it up, and then Peak Design picked it up. It just went completely viral.
Basically, I called the entire outdoor industry on systemic racism—that’s what that article speaks to. And so what you’ve been seeing—all the podcasts and all the invites—[the article] is what started that. And what I’m speaking to is not just systemic racism toward people of color in the outdoors, but this also started to span into women being unsafe in the outdoors by themselves. And at the same time [the article was spreading], I was getting emails—I still get emails and Instagram messages—from women. I get emails from Indian people. I get emails from Hispanic people. It’s really interesting. Most feedback was positive—many people showed support.
That article and all the work I’ve been doing has actually brought a lot of people into the light in talking about their fear of being by themselves in the outdoors. It’s something that no one speaks about and they don’t share. It’s been going on and going on—it’s not a new thing, I just brought this into the light.
And so when people were saying this doesn’t exist—racism doesn’t exist out there—that’s a bunch of crap. Because what happened is that, no joke, if you go to something like the post at Hatch, I would guarantee you will see so much hate coming from the outdoor community, speaking ugliness to me. My life has been threatened many times. I’ve received so many negative, ignorant, hateful texts. It’s ugly, and it’s all coming from the outdoor community. So when people say it doesn’t exist, I was like, “Well, all I had to do was sit and wait, and you see people start to come out of the outdoors and speak this ugliness.” They’re just revealing themselves. The article revealed it. It allowed people to come out in support, but also allowed a lot of the hate of folks to come out and show itself. And, truly, that speaks to the fear of me, it speaks to the fear of women, it speaks to fear of indigenous people.
Imagine being outdoors and seeing that person who sent that bad text. That person, whey they pick up their rod and waders to go fly fish, or pick up their weapon and go hunting, or go out for a trail run, brings their mindset. When that mindset of racism, ignorance, or bigotry is carried onto public lands, people of color, women, and LGBTQ communities don’t feel comfortable roaming wild spaces freely and safely. The last thing you want to come across is someone who has it in for you because they have a problem with you being a woman or with your skin color.
The problem on public lands and our fresh waters is that there are hubs of a mentality of ownership that seems to be ingrained. I have had people yell “get off my land,” “this is my hole,” and “get off my river” to me and call me racial slurs while on public rivers. I have been shot at on two of those occasions. In that situation, this is my reality: I’m black. If a shot rings out in the outdoors and I draw my weapon to defend myself, it’s my word against that person, if that person is still alive. How does that look? Should I take a stand and defend myself or not? Is justice going to be on my side? No, I’m going to have to face some time even though I was defending myself. I either go to jail or I go six feet under.
This ownership mentality speaks in a superiority voice that establishes boundaries of discomfort to people of color, women, etc. It makes others feel uncomfortable and not wanted, especially when it comes to folks who are just now seeing how wonderful nature is for the first time. The reality of the ownership mentality is that it is nothing but bullying with hate and power and it lends itself to systemic racism.
The outdoors should be a place of refuge where we should all be able to roam free without concerns and we should feel safe, but a lot of us don’t due to the fact that we live amongst ignorance, bigotry, and racism in some of the people we encounter in the outdoors. That is our lens and that is our life.
I am trying to bring this discomfort into an open space. This is real and this affects so many people. There are thousands of folks with fear in the outdoors, but do not speak to the fear because they carry shame and most folks will put them down quickly and not listen. Our biggest problem is that we are quick to judge and make others feel less-than, unsafe, or uncomfortable. If we learn to listen and learn, we will learn to understand one another and learn from one another.
To read Chad’s article that has raised this conversation, click here.
He has also shared a few sources for those looking to listen and participate more deeply:
An article by Oregon Public Broadcasting: https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-northwest-racism-outdoors-nature-hiking/
And this video, also created by Oregon Wild: