A GUIDED TOUR OF
POVERTY IN MEMPHIS
© Leonor Cosano Jurado
Photographer Alan Spearman of The Commercial Appeal
in Memphis teamed up with a summer intern to make a
rich, poetic film about the hard edges of poverty, from the
viewpoint of an insider struggling to pull himself out.
By David Walker
Photojournalist alan sPearman’s short film
As I Am is a work of urban poetry, spoken and visual,
about life in the memphis projects through the eyes
of a young black man who grew up there. an emmy
award-winning filmmaker and staff photographer at
The Commercial Appeal, spearman made As I Am to kick
off the paper’s ongoing project about poverty.
the subject of the film is Christopher Dean, who
had a moment in the Youtube spotlight in 2011 for his
charming introduction of President Barack obama at
a high-school graduation, where the president spoke.
Community leaders in memphis rallied around Dean af-
terwards to help him pay for college. in the summer of
2012, Dean got an internship at The Commercial Appeal.
at an editorial meeting, where mostly white, middle-aged, middle-class men mulled ideas for an ambitious
project about poverty, Dean offered them insight from
an insider’s perspective. spearman was also at the
meeting. “i was uncomfortable just starting with the
word ‘poverty.’ What is it? What’s underneath it?” he
says. “i was having trouble figuring out what to dig into.
“Chris Dean and i were eyeing each other,” spearman
continues. “so [Chris] Peck”—editor of The Commercial
Appeal—“said, ‘Why don’t you guys go figure some-
“i thought it sounded great to get out there in
neighborhoods we don’t cover that well,” sale says, ex-
plaining that the original concept was to explore how
people in poverty survive. “it was a bit of a shortcut to
have a tour guide [in Dean] who already has the trust
of the people in the neighborhood.”
sale wasn’t sure what spearman and Dean would
come back with, but after a couple of days, they showed
sale some pictures. “i said, ‘let’s keep going,’” sale re-
counts. “it was clear there was something there.”
spearman says he had recognized in Dean a sense
of story and a patois that those from the projects of-
ten learn. “People have a lyrical sense about them [be-
cause when] people put you down, you’ve got to come
back at them,” spearman says. “this kid has an amaz-
ing voice. i figured all i had to do was meet it.”
his idea of walking around with Dean was inspired
by film director Werner herzog, with whom spearman
had taken a master class. “Werner talked about walking
around on foot and meeting the glory,” spearman says.
in practical terms, that means listening for the emotion-
al and universal truths as people tell their own stories.
they walked around Dean’s neighborhood a couple
of days a week. spearman asked Dean a lot of questions
about people they met, and about how those people
thought and felt about their situation. he took visual
notes with an iPhone, and asked Dean to write down
his observations about the people and scenes that
caught their attention. “i was trying to make my pic-
tures and his observations come together,” spearman
says. “We ended up walking and collecting a script that
we turned into a three-act narrative poem.”
Both Photos © 2012 ALAN SPEARMAN/ The CommerCial appeal, ALL RIGH TS RESERVED
Alan Spearman (inset) made visual notes with an iPhone camera as he scouted rough Memphis neighborhoods with Christopher Dean for his latest film project.
Above: Sanicka Austin (left) and Marcus Wellington (right).