Photo Journal: Alan Spearman, Living on the Edges

  • SOUTH MEMPHIS

By James Colton

Jim Colton: Could you give our readers a brief history of your journey as a photojournalist, including what drew you into photography as a career choice?

Alan Spearman: It goes back to when I was a kid in high school. I was interested in sculpture and painting and was nudged by art teachers to try photography…and I did and I tried to understand light better. My parents were a little worried about pursuing the “art side.” They said, “You should do something more of a career….something that resembles stability.” I ended up at The University of Georgia and became interested in their communications department. I discovered National Geographic and realized that there are people that actually get paid to do that…and it wasn’t just some yellow bordered magazine that sits on the table. I met Steve Dozier, the photojournalism professor, who said to me, “If you’re interested, I’ll show you the path.” I wound up doing internships at the Miami Herald, The Concord Monitor, The Roanoke Times, The Portland Oregonian and The Minneapolis Tribune before I ended up in Memphis.

Memphis blew my mind. I was always a fan of American folklore and tales of the Mississippi River and became attracted to the music and to the river. I contacted Dennis Dimick at The National Geographic and he suggested I start doing longer term projects in the “style” of the Geographic. So I started to cover the music culture of Memphis. Along the way I realized that painting led me to photography and photography led me to film. I wanted to capture more than still photography would allow.

JC: Much of your current work is in video as opposed to stills. What influenced you to make this transition and what different skill sets must a journalist use in this medium to maximize its effectiveness.

AS: One of the really special things about Memphis is that the degrees of separation are really small…so you can meet anybody. Back in 2000 there was a film festival called Indie Memphis; I had never been to a film festival before. I thought film was too expensive and that I’d have to go to film school but was still very interested in it. There I met Craig Brewer who made the films “Hustle and Flow,” and recently remade “Footloose.” He was there showing his first film on digital video. He wasn’t sure about the medium and when talking to his dad said, he said he didn’t think video was compelling. His dad said, “Have you ever seen the Rodney King video?” I was so moved by this story that I said to myself, “I gotta make a film!” 

So I called Lance Murphey who was a photographer at the Commercial Appeal and said, “Were gonna make a film.” And he said, “About what?” I said, “I dunno, but were gonna make one!” Around that time I was still working around the Mississippi River and sent out a lot of feelers with the coast guard, etc., and said if you see anything interesting “floating by” let me know. So one day, I got a call from the coast guard and the guy says, “You gotta meet this guy.”  And he became the subject of my first film called, “Nobody,” which took almost 5 years to do and really became my film school! 

JC: Can you talk a little about the different “mindset” you have to have when shooting video?

AS: In short, I discovered how “the edges” became important to me….more than things like the decisive moment. In film making it’s about connecting all these edges….how to create a story that has a beginning, middle and end…and how you look for emotion as opposed to peak action or a moment. You also have to tune in your ear to hearing instead of just seeing.

JC: Could you walk us through your project, "As I am," giving our readers an understanding of how this particular project transited from an idea into fruition. 

AS: In 2011 Memphis was named the poorest city in America. Our editor at the time Chris Peck had always wanted to do something on poverty. During one of the “budget” meetings, Chris Dean the subject of As I Am, had just gotten an internship for the summer at the newspaper. After listening to all the parties discuss the subject we decided on the approach of “survival” as opposed to “poverty.” So it was decided that Chris and I would work together and I thought the approach of just being an “observer” would be enough.  In south Memphis you can just walk around and see the most unusual things. So our proposal was an eight week project where these “observations” would be the photo essay for the paper but also be used as the basis for the script of a film. 

So Chris and I would create these poems along with the pictures, for example, in the first ten minutes of walking around we came across this guy name Lonzo who was shirtless and picking up cans just to get by. But there was a hole in the plastic bag so when he put one in, another would fall out. So Chris wrote "Ten cents a can is what the old man is sayin' without sayin'. But hard work won't pay off if he keep dropping cans. Too much pride to hold out his hand, so ten cents a can is what the old man is saying without saying." It was an insight into survival, poverty and the economy. All of these observations and notes turned into a three act narrative that became the basis of the film. We wound up shooting the video for it over the last two weeks of the project.

JC: What advice would you offer to an up-and-coming photojournalist?

AS: Above all, learning business is extremely important. I’d also advise them to be curious of everything else outside of photojournalism. Read as much as you possibly can because that’s where some of the best ideas come from. Learn how to become a good researcher. Anyone can take a picture but delivering information in a story will always be valuable. But you need more parts now that you used to. A five or six picture essay just doesn’t cut it anymore. And as new apps and technology are developed, they are really not being done with our skill set in mind….so it is incumbent upon us to inject that skill set into new technology.

JC: Lastly, what’s next on the horizon for Alan Spearman?

AS: Mark Adams and I are starting a new production company here in Memphis. At this point we have between four and six projects that we’re pretty excited about including working with some photojournalists helping them translate their still vision into motion….to create a more robust landscape with what they do. We are also looking into partnering with the folks at Vimeo who have been very supportive and receptive to ideas, about working with some brands and bringing some authenticity to the advertisers. And I am also working on producing a feature film that I’ve been working on for the last two years called “Ground,” which will be a narrative feature, not a documentary feature. So that stuff will keep us busy with a sort of two year plan with 4 to 8 projects…so we’ll see how far we get with that!

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