How to Create Content and Stand Out: A Conversation with Gem Fletcher

“Women still need to fight every day and those in power need to look around.” – Gem Fletcher

Gem Fletcher wears many hats. A photo director for Riposte, she regularly writes about photography for Creative Review, collaborates with brands, and launched the successful podcast The Messy Truth last year. Rocket Science Magazine founder and Luupe photographer Pauline Magnenat speaks with Fletcher to discuss how to best introduce yourself to her, what women can do to support each other in the photo industry and why those in power need to address representation in a meaningful way.

Transhuman – photographed by David Viniter – concept and art direction by Gem Fletcher

Pauline Magnenat: You studied fine art and started your career working in advertising. How did you first engage with the photographic industry?  

Gem Fletcher: Studying fine art at Nottingham Trent University gave me a great foundation in ideas and critical thinking. In advertising; I spent most of my time on the pitch team, developing ideas and brand stories. From there, I worked in media as an art director for an image library. I built up a large network of collaborators, started a grants program, curated shows, spoke at events around the world and art directed shoots. During my time there, I met Patrick Burgoyne, the previous editor of Creative Review who gave me a column to focus on emerging talent in photography.  This was an exciting outlet for me – a real opportunity to shine a light on new talent and inspire the advertising world to hire them.

Magnenat: What keeps you engaged with it today?

Fletcher: While so many great things came out of my job, I started to become quite stifled and wanted to explore new ways of working in the industry. I now have a multi-hyphenated career in photography. Going freelance was the best decision I ever made. I split my time between art directing and artist development.  I also write about art and culture for a range of publications, including ItsNiceThat, Elephant, The September Issues, BJP, Sleek and An0ther.  I consult for brands and have created original content for NOWNESS, TED, Moleskine and WeTransfer. I curate exhibitions, give talks and host events and the variety feeds me – each element builds on each other, providing me with a deeper understanding of the industry.

Devyn Galindo is also fantastic at using different formats to express her work. She recently launched a zine for her new personal work ‘The Van Dykes’ which includes a mix of visuals and interviews with her subjects – it’s simple, smart, and really engaging.” – Gem Fletcher

Magnenat: What do you think are the most common mistakes photographers make when they reach out to you? 

Fletcher: The approach is so important and can sometimes be the difference between getting an opportunity, or missing out. I think the main mistakes are long drawn out emails which are unclear in their ask or very aggressive follow-up. In my opinion, the key is to be short, to the point, and personal. Take the time to research the person you’re emailing, look at the work they commission or share and think carefully about which project in your folio might appeal to them. Send a short email being clear about what you’re asking for. If you don’t hear back, follow up a week later. If you don’t hear back, then follow up a few months later with a new project.

Magnenat: Can you recall one photographer who did it in a perfect way?

Fletcher: Alexander Coggin sends out a brilliant quarterly pdf, stuffed with new work. It’s simple, concise, and perfect. I always look forward to receiving it and despite following his work closely – there are always a few surprises in there. Devyn Galindo is also fantastic at using different formats to express her work. She recently launched a zine for her new personal work ‘The Van Dykes’ which includes a mix of visuals and interviews with her subjects – it’s simple, smart, and really engaging.

Magnenat: You’re the photo editor of Riposte, a magazine that stands out for its bold covers profiling fascinating women. What makes an image stand out from the rest, what makes a great cover?

Fletcher: Riposte is an incredible title to contribute to. The editor Danielle Pender is such a creative force and always pushes the team to think radically and always open to experimentation. I was a huge fan of the mag since it launched, so I was honored when they asked me to join them. I work closely with all the visual contributors to frame the magazine’s agenda and make provocative and dynamic visual work.

We are constantly trying to push our covers forward and rethink what the cover can be. It always comes back to being bold, challenging expectations, profiling women who you don’t always see in the mainstream, and inspiring our readers.

Our Issue #8 cover with activist, sexuality educator, performer, and cancer warrior Ericka Hart was one of my favorites. We worked with the incredible Shaniqwa Jarvis and went for a really pared-back approach.  No styling, no hair, and make-up artist. Just the two of them together. The images that came back were tender, but confrontation, fun but powerful and they were everything we hope for and more. The cover got a huge amount of attention, which was great – but more importantly, we had so many messages from readers who it really resonated for. For me, images are at there most powerful when they can provoke emotion, start conversations, and challenge perceptions.

The cover of Riposte # 8 – photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis

Magnenat: What do you look for when commissioning a photographer to make a portrait? 

Fletcher: I’m looking at tone, technique, and personality. How people work is just as important as the type of images they make. I’ve personally found that investing in relationships creates a strong foundation. I meet with photographers every week. It allows me to get to know them and their work, find out what excites and motivates them and most importantly finding out how they make their best work.

Magnenat: How much input do you give them beforehand, if any?

Fletcher: Some people love creative freedom, and you can just give them a seed of an idea or story, and they will make something incredible, others prefer more collaboration, bouncing ideas and references back and forth and deciding on an approach together. Understanding these nuances is really important. My approach as an art and photo director is flexible; I ultimately want to find the right route to creating the best work.

“Well of Death” – photographed by Ken Hermann. Art Directed by Gem Fletcher. In partnership with WeTransfer.

Magnenat: How do you suggest photographers avoid working for free? When do you think it is important to draw the line?

Fletcher: It’s a loaded question. Honestly, I increasingly believe photographers shouldn’t work for free. Shooting editorial is often a huge undertaking where many photographers have to cover significant costs, so if brands are asking you to work for free – just don’t do it. 

With an abundance of images shared online came a misguided belief that images are free for the taking, free to be ripped off, or can be made for next to nothing. It’s critical that as an industry, we educate people on what it takes to make high-quality images and the value they have. If photographers keep undercutting each other or working for free, you’re impacting the entire industry and will lose out long term.

Focus your time on personal work, pro-active pitching, building your network through attending industry events, and doing your research about the visual approach of the magazines and brands you want to work with. Rather than work for free, invest your time in PR. Share your work with creative blogs, do an IG takeover, go into an Ad agency and do a talk about your work – invest your time in endeavors which will generate paid work rather than falling for the promise that free work leads to paid opportunities. On most occasions, it doesn’t.

The Traces Left Behind – photographed by Catherine Hyland. Art Directed by Gem Fletcher

Magnenat: What is something in the industry that deserves more attention?

Fletcher: The most urgent development we need to see in commercial and editorial photography centers on representation. We’ve been talking about it for years, but photography is still not reflective of society. Systemic oppression is so deeply embedded in our media, in our agencies, in our process, and our content. It’s been there for generations. If you feel like representation is a tired buzzword, or you’ve filled your diversity quota for the year, or you feel like it’s an issue we’ve resolved and it’s time to move on – then I urge you to stop and look closer at those around you, and how ideas come together and stories are being told. The simple truth is that if you’re creating work and not addressing representation in a meaningful way – then you’re rendering yourself obsolete.

Representation is not just about who’s in front of the camera, or who’s holding the camera – it’s every stage of the creative process from ideation to production.

Industry systems and processes are toxic and out-dated. I’m utterly energized by the new generations who are harnessing their influence to build new systems, agencies, platforms, and distribution methods that address the failings of institutions. They grew up acutely aware of the forces working to maintain exclusion and are committed to reimagining the creative process from beginning to end.

Gem Fletcher’s feature on Renell Medrano for Sleek Magazine

Magnenat: What do you think is the biggest obstacle women face today in the photo industry?
Have you noticed any cultural shifts that make you hopeful – or not – about the future of women in the photographic industry?

Fletcher: As a whole, we are still underrepresented on pitch lists, on panels, and on agent’s rosters. For WOC, the reality is even worse. We still need to fight every day, and it’s vital for women (and men!) who hold power in the industry to look around – think about who’s not there and why, and create an opportunity for someone. On the positive side of this, women and non-binary creatives are rising up to the challenge. They are owning their experience, challenging institutionalized narratives, and speaking up. Here are just a few examples; Charlotte Jansen’s book Girl on Girl, Sophie Ebards powerful essay Breastfeeding at work, Dana Scruggs ‘SCRUGGS Magazine’ and Felicity Hammond challenging injustice.

Magnenat: You launched your podcast, The Messy Truth, about a year ago. What does this latest endeavor bring you, on top of all other activities?

Fletcher: The podcast began as my pregnancy project. I felt incredibly powerful when I was pregnant – those negative voices that sometimes stop me from being bold went on hiatus, and I decided to just go for it. It’s something I was thinking about for two years. There are a lot of podcasts out there celebrating long-established photographers, and while we can learn so much from them, the landscape has shifted, and there are new ideas and modalities to explore. I wanted to speak to the new-gen – to look at the industry in the current moment and where it might be going. These are photographers who are shaping the visual culture of the future. At the time I launched, I think TMT was the only female-hosted photography podcast out there. It may still be the only one.

 A year in and it already has a really loyal and ever-growing community. The audience is super engaged, and I love seeing people share the episodes, which resonate for them. It’s a labor of love as it’s all self-funded and is a big investment of time, but it gets to the essence of what I’m about in a really direct way.

Grace Ladoja Photographed by Ruth Ossai and art directed by Gem Fletcher for Riposte

Magnenat: What are you hoping people get from the podcast, and do you feel that photographers are better podcasters than writers when it comes to discussing their work?

Fletcher: It all stemmed from my mentor work and the conversations I had with photographers every week. Photography can be an isolating industry – I felt it was important to share these conversations with a broader group. The intimate and accessible format of a podcast allows the listener to be part of the conversation anywhere in the world. It’s a companion for busy creatives on the go.

I chat to photographers, commissioners, and editors who share their work and process, discussing everything from the impact of social media, representation, gaze, awards, mental health, and more. These candid conversations unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today. I think talking about work in an intimate and relaxed setting enables photographers to unravel the work in an organic way which reveals more about the way they think and approach creating work. It’s these nuances and motivations that I’m fascinated by. Writing is tough – it can be hard to distill an idea in a few sentences, especially if you’re primarily a visual person. The podcast gives them space.

Since its inception, photography has played a critical role in our lives. The camera is a powerful tool that informs how we perceive and experience the world. It shapes opinions, can build or break stereotypes, and can render the invisible, visible. It’s always an exciting place to be.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. Photographed by Rose Marie Cromwell and art directed by Gem Fletcher for Riposte

Magnenat: We first started talking before the Covid-19 outbreak. Now that we’ve been in lockdown for close to two months, how have you adapted to the new normal? Has it affected the way you work? Are you hopeful for what’s to come?

Fletcher: I think ‘normal’ is just a construct. Life is in constant flux and for many people in the creative industries what people keep referring to as ‘normal’ was destructive to our mental and physical health. The pace was out of control. The process was not conducive to great work and the pressure at all levels was not sustainable.  So many of us were lost in the expectations of others.  I hope photographers are using this time to be still, to metabolize and to find the joy in their work again.  In a lecture for Yale School of Art, LaToya Ruby Frazier shared some powerful advice “Realise you have entered into a moment in human history where you are going to be held the most accountable you have ever been held.” 

The last two months have also reinforced photography as our primary language in culture. Beyond the critical documentary work, the conditions in which people are sharing their experiences and how they are doing has all been through images, from sentimental journeys through their camera roll which speaks to the past we no longer have access to, to the zoom portraits and self-enforced quarantine residencies. Creatives have continued to push the definitions of art forward.

I’m feeling resolute that there will be a positive future. This time has also reminded us what a powerful and supportive community the photo world is. Over the last few months, we’ve come together in new and more powerful ways. We’ve raised vital funds for those who need it most. We’ve supported each other through some incredible initiatives online –  some of my personal highlights include Tyler Mitchell’s Night at the Cinema, Work.Show.Grow, Digital Discourse, the Yale Lecture Series. The list is endless. The power of gathering, sharing, and learning from each other has been invaluable.