Collaborator's Corner: A Q&A with Gem Fletcher

–  Tianna and Caitlyn, Hyde Park, 2021, London, GBR, 2021 | DER GREIF
Image selected from Fletcher's Guest Room. Alice Zoo - Tianna and Caitlyn, Hyde Park, 2021, London, GBR, 2021

Gem Fletcher is a London-based writer, host of “The Messy Truth” podcast, and the photo director of Riposte Magazine. Fletcher was a guest curator for Guest Room in September 2021, where she collaborated with her longtime friend and artist Carmen Winant. Francesca, our Community Manager, caught up with Gem to see what she has been up to since her Guest Room on the theme “optimism and revolution-making”.

Der Greif: Gem, firstly welcome! Can you give our community some background as to how you started your multifaceted freelance career?

Gem: It took me a while to realise that leaning into your difference is where you find your superpower.

I don't think in craft, although photography is my area of expertise. I think about ideas, communication, strategies and about centring an emotional connection. At the core of my work, whether that's writing, podcasting, art direction or photo direction, I use photography to open up conversations about our world and how we live.

My practice is unfixed and constantly evolving. I spent fifteen years art directing before pivoting to writing because I craved a more intimate and critical connection to photography. I started the podcast when I was pregnant. It had percolated for a decade, born from my journey through the industry navigating gatekeepers and the issues I've uncovered through mentoring hundreds of emerging photographers. I wanted to create a safe space for candid conversations about image-making covering various topics, from mental health to money. I'm so grateful for the incredibly engaged community that has grown around it.

Der Greif: Could you reflect on what it was like being a Guest Room guest curator for us? What did you take away from the process and your collaboration?

Gem: Thank you for having me. It was a great experience. The opportunity to tap into and be part of the Der Greif community, a platform I've long admired, was really special. Beyond getting to collaborate with Carmen Winant, an artist and friend whose insight and vision I continue to learn from - it was just a generative and inspiring experience to see how different image makers approached the brief. The theme opened up many unexpected visual strategies, reflecting on how photography can be a teacher, a healer and a community builder.

Der Greif: Your Guest Room's theme, "optimism and revolution-making", might read very differently now. Do you think your approach to this theme would be different if you were to curate around it now? What does "optimism and revolution-making" mean to you today?

Gem: While the world now feels bleaker than a year ago - the values of optimism and revolution making are more urgent and necessary than ever. I've been thinking a lot about Antonio Gramsci's quote, "pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will." And how important it is to hold onto hope. We have no choice but to be in the thick of it. Denial is not an option. I heard Jia Tolentino speak recently about abortion rights, but I think the sentiment resonates with everything we are grappling with. She said, "You can have hopelessness as a feeling but never as a standpoint." In every context, we must act now.

Der Greif: You have been hosting your podcast “The Messy Truth” about the world of contemporary photography since 2019. What is the biggest change you’ve witnessed in photography since you started the project?

Gem: The industry is still working through the aftershocks of 2020 and how the social justice movement catalysed urgent and long overdue interrogations of our ethics and our institutions.

While many organisations are still grappling with this, and others have chosen to ignore it, I've seen a fundamental shift in the mindset of many established individuals.

It is powerful to see established individuals be more open and vocal about their journey and how it is entangled with struggle and/or privilege. Art stars are beginning to acknowledge that they didn't get to where they are overnight and that many people helped them along their way. While this might not seem radical, their vulnerability and fallibility open up meaningful conversations about the work we need to do as a community to evolve our industry.

Der Greif: Can you tell us about your most challenging piece of writing in the last year?

Gem: Honestly, in some ways, writing is always challenging. I'm deeply invested in the practice and the work I'm writing about - it's an emotional endeavour. I'm always chasing the notion of extrapolating what's in my mind onto the page, which motivates me to keep going.

A few of the most memorable pieces from this year were talking about queer motherhood with Catherine Opie for Mother Tongue, collaborating with Rhiannon Adam on the intro for her latest book, Big Fence, a dark and challenging book about Pitcairn Island and an essay I wrote for The British Journal of Photography about the survival strategies of artists, in which I spoke to Alec Soth, Poulomi Basu, Justine Kurland and Jess T Dugan.

Der Greif: What would be your advice to “emerging” photographers now? What do you think makes someone stand out?

Gem: Think about what's at stake in your work. We live in an increasingly volatile world, and if you're going to take up space as an image maker, consider how you can use your platform to engage with the world in a meaningful way. While the problems we face often seem insurmountable, incremental change can be revolutionary. Picture-making may sometimes feel futile, but it is a vital catalyst for change and consciousness-raising.

Der Greif: Are there any photographers that you think are worth following closely at the moment?

Gem: There are so many. A few off the top of my head and in no particular order: Lina Geoushy, Myriam Boulos, Paul Guilmoth, Tami Aftab, Karla Hiraldo Voleau, Kennedi Carter, Kuba Ryniewicz, Keerthana Kunnath, Silvia Rosi, Alexandra Howland, Sasha Hitchcock, Poulumi Basu, Prathna Singh, Diego Moreno. Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-nti, Maggie Shannon, Tess Ayano and Vivek Vadoliya. Jess Dugan, Laia Abril, Brea Souders and Carmen Winant are all important touchpoints for me.

Der Greif: In an image-saturated world, what makes an image resonate with you?

Gem: Emotional connection. I'm interested in work that challenges us socially, politically and emotionally. For me, great work is a sucker-punch to the gut in the best way.