Meet the Fellow: Anna Clare Spelman

I knew there was something slightly Midwestern in the honesty of Anna’s huge hug when I met her on the first night of IWMF HEFAT training. That’s because Anna and I likely brushed shoulders at a dive bar in St. Louis, Missouri around 2009, where we graduated just one year and two miles apart from each other. There must have been something in the water in St. Louis from 2008-2011, when Anna, Danielle Mackey, and Katie Schlechter and I all graduated one year after the other, completely unbeknownst to each other. Fast forward almost a decade, and here we all are in a small mountain town in Mexico, where we would soon be taking out years of aggression on a red lobster man and quietly reaching out for each others hands during an all-too-real kidnapping simulation. It was the first time any of us had ever met a journalist in our field who studied in St. Louis. A big round of Midwest hugs ensued with this revelation.

Yet despite her honest eyes, award-winning hugs and Washington University B.A., Anna is not a Midwesterner, but was raised in Maryland by two artists. Her dad is an oral storyteller and her mother is a choreographer. In filmmaking her mothers art of movement and her fathers craft of storytelling coalesced in a medium that has become her own. In our interview for this series, I got a glimpse of how her subjects must feel during an interview, and it made me proud to call myself her colleague. Anna is the kind of person who makes you feel like there is all the time in the world when you’re talking, and that there is no place she would rather be.

As an adolescent, Anna’s first photo essay was a story shot from the point of view of her dog – which I find not only adorably brilliant, but an early sign of the empathy that would come to define her voice as a filmmaker. For Anna, that defining moment came much later in life, when she was living in Thailand and Cambodia. While working at a Burmese migrant camp in Thailand, Anna worked side by side with the woman who ran the camp for a week. Without a word of shared language in common, photography became the only language they could share, and it was a powerful one.

“It was the first time I realized the power of really intimate storytelling to transcend language,” Anna reflects, “by the end of the week, I felt like a gap had been bridged through photography.”

For the first few years of her career, she focused mostly on photography, but was drawn to the flexibility that video provides – but like many of us who began as photographers, the technical aspects of video felt like a barrier. She confronted this barrier head-on with an MA in Visual Journalism from the University of North Carolina during which she focused on video. When she covered the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, the power of filmmaking was overwhelming, “it felt like recording a piece of history, and that you needed to hear these voices to understand it, and video was able to do that.” She remembers clearly sitting in someone’s living room with her camera rolling and thinking, “what a privilege this is, and a huge responsibility, to contribute to the telling of other people’s stories.”

Anna is currently working as a producer and editor for Blue Chalk Media in Portland, Oregon, and is two years into a documentary project that she’s already committed a decade of her life to. “Meant to be Maddie” is a feature-length documentary about a transgender girl in North Carolina. Anna pursued the project around the time that the bathroom bill debate had started in North Carolina, and wanted to produce something that was non-sexualized and more about the identity and voice of an impacted child. When she started filmmaking, Maddie was 9, and the family wasn’t even sure the video would ever be public. With Maddie’s enthusiasm for the filmmaking process, Anna became part of the family, and together they decided that Maddie has so much in front of her that they just had to keep going. Working collaboratively with Maddie and her family, Anna plans to film with Maddie as she leaves childhood through young adulthood – an intimidating commitment for any filmmaker, but one Anna says is the most fulfilling project she’s ever done.

Watching Anna work on this trip has been so motivating – whether flying a drone over maquilas or pouring her whole heart into a difficult interview – this opportunity to work alongside her has deepened my respect for her as a reporter, and inspired my work. I cannot wait to see the films she’s producing on this trip, and look forward to being friends and collaborators for years to come.