BEHIND THE LENS
Syrian refugees. DACA recipients. Hillary Clinton. These are just a sampling of the trending political subjects you’ll see on any given day in America. They’re also the subjects that documentary filmmaker Kelly Teacher pursued, produced, and directed during her time working on the first-ever video team at Condé Nast’s Teen Vogue.
During that one political election season we’ll never forget, Teen Vogue unveiled their short-lived but impactful series, “Ask A,” to unearth misconceptions about female minorities through intimate interviews. In one video we see Syrian teens muse on what being American means to them. In another, a Native American girl dispels the outmoded belief that all Native American families live in tepees. Living in a largely Democratic state as we do, it’s hard to believe that some of these stereotypes still exist. But if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s to assume nothing. “We had this amazing opportunity to interview teen girls whose perspectives are rarely shared,” Teacher says. “Seeing the kind of impact you can have telling underrepresented stories made me want to keep doing that forever.”
Teacher is sitting on her sustainably sourced couch adorned with an assortment of throw pillows. The rustic farmhouse she shares with her fiancé atop a hill in Wurtsboro, NY, looks like the prototype of an Anthropologie pop-up store. Everything from the coffee table and carousel horse statue to the wooden cabinet stocked with more cloth napkins than I’ve ever seen is sourced from vintage stores, travels, and her family. It’s all adorable yet undeniably authentic.
“My biggest takeaway from working at Teen Vogue is, at the end of the day, we’re all human,” she tells me over bites of takeout salad and burritos from the local vegetarian restaurant. “And being there helped me become more socially conscious and aware of all my privilege,” she says. “The Syrian girls I met just wanted to be normal teenagers; go shopping, get their nails done, things like that. What was amazing about them was how much they’ve been through and how resilient they are.”
Teacher’s fiercely bright and gentle eyes mirror the exact color of the aquamarine pom-pom sweater she paired with white cotton pants. Her short haircut and well-maintained but unmanicured nails read more New England proper than southern California laid-back, but her stylistic quirks underscore the filmmaker’s professional interests: She not only defies stereotypes but actively seeks to debunk them.
Born into an upper-middle-class family in Santa Monica, Teacher is the daughter of a former professional tennis player and a model/actress, so naturally, she gravitated toward being in the spotlight. As a kid, she was so extroverted, she dreamed of becoming a professional clown. Once she realized that clowns were in fact creepy, she moved on to the next logical choice: acting. And luckily, she was in a geographically advantageous place to pursue it seriously. With roles in films like Being John Malkovich and Carlo’s Wake, Teacher carved out a steady childhood acting career — that is, until she hit puberty. “I was nine years old and had just switched from public to private school,” she says. “I got made fun of for being an actor and didn’t want to do it anymore. I think your adolescence is the biggest part that shapes who you are. When I stopped acting and grew a bit older, my whole personality changed. I didn’t see myself as one to be an actress. I became a different human being.”
Still, Teacher had an unwavering desire to tell stories. With the intention to edit films, she enrolled in the USC School of Cinema-Television and knew she had found her creative medium. After hitting the road as an editor and tour photographer for musicians like The Staves, Glass Animals, and Bear’s Den in her early 20s, Teacher settled in New York City and began to take her role behind the camera more seriously. “The kinds of stories I would like to tell have anything to do with young women, the environment, and animal rights,” she says. For the past few years, Teacher has been traveling to Chile as the director of The Great Whale, a documentary film to save the blue whale, the largest species on the planet. She follows an ardent environmental activist who’s on a quest to amend shipping-lane rules in Los Angeles, Chile, and Sri Lanka. “The main focus has been lobbying governments and corporations to change the times of day the ships enter shipping lanes so that they can stop hitting and killing blue whales,” she says.
In a time of uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: Teacher is eager to make an impact on the planet. “The time we live in now is scary, but kind of inspiring, too,” she says. “I think if you just have your eyes and your ears open, it’s really easy to be informed and take action.”