I first met Emily in Mexico City during our HEFAT training, but it felt like we had known each other much longer—and perhaps we even could have met, as we received our undergraduate degrees two years apart, and about two miles away from one another in Saint Louis, MO (strangely enough, along with two other fellows, Danielle Mackey and Katie Schlechter. We were all destined to be united in Mexico City).
Emily smiles easily and her presence makes everyone around her comfortable. It’s obvious to see why everyone she films must feel instantly comfortable with her as well. She also has excellent comedic timing. (But. You don’t want to get on her bad side; another fellow lovingly dubbed her “The Assassin” during our training because she turned the tables on our trainers during a live shooting simulation).
Emily and I both do most of our work in the film and video world, and so we’ve had lots to chat about.
Emily fell in love with journalism by accident. She was working for a sustainable development startup after college, and on a work trip she found herself stuck in rural Panama due to ongoing protests blocking the roads. So Emily went to the protest to learn more, and her career in journalism began. She was in awe of the strength of the protestors; indigenous communities who were fighting for their rights and their land, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that the work she had been doing was “on the wrong side” of things. While the sustainable development advocates had been praising the environmental effects of a dam, Emily was seeing the human consequences: hundreds of thousands of people who were angry, and willing to risk so much to fight for their rights. Incensed by the lack of media coverage, she felt that more people needed to hear these stories, to understand all sides of the issue.
Fast forward to a few months later, and you would find Emily hiking across Panama, camera and recorder in hand, filming the beginning of her first documentary about land rights in Panama.
After this trek, she went back to Chicago to learn as much as she could about filmmaking and video journalism and to hone her craft. She realized that while she loves narrative and fiction films, she felt that journalism and non fiction storytelling were the place she needed to be to make the most impact. “If you’re not seeking truth and looking for all sides of things, everything is constructed”. Truth was the most powerful way for her to help tell stories that needed to be told.
She saw the impact this kind of storytelling can have after her first video piece was published. She worked with an entrepreneur in Panama who had recently come out of prison, and who had started his own business to help others in similar situations. After Emily’s piece was published, he was flooded with donations and was able to broaden his reach in the community.
In late 2016 Emily moved to Iraq for the better part of a year. She knew that there were defining moments in history happening in Iraq and she was especially interested in covering the impact of the humanitarian crisis on women. Her work that came out of her time there shows how deeply she cares about these stories, and how committed she is.
So what’s next for Emily?
“I’m not going to let go of stories that no one else is listening to, that are close to my heart. There’s this idea that you should keep yourself and your emotions out of your work, which is true of course when you are fact checking, but you have to invest yourself and your life into it for the stories to get made. This year I especially want to commit to women’s stories of resistance and resilience in post-conflict Iraq.”
Though I haven’t known her that long, I know that if Emily commits to something, she follows through, whether that is getting revenge on our trainers, getting up at sunrise every morning to seek the best light, finding the best michelada, or telling impactful and empowering stories. I look forward to following her work, deepening our friendship, and collaborating with her further in the future.
-Anna Clare Spelman