First Hand — What it means to be a photographer today: Gem Fletcher on the ‘messy truth’ of the industry

Posted 22 May 2019 Written by Gem Fletcher

Building up a career in photography is no easy feat. For many, it will mean launching straight into freelance life and making decisions about personal style and integrity at an early stage, as well as what you take on as money work. Since it can also be a relatively solo pursuit, making these choices can be daunting and isolating. Art director Gem Fletcher has decided to bring some of these recurring issues to the surface with her podcast, The Messy Truth. Here she tells us why it’s so important to be having these discussions, and highlights some of her most insightful conversations.

Having worked in the creative industry for over a decade, I’ve mentored photographers at all stages of their career. In that time, I’ve had a great many one-on-one conversations about the industry and how the visual landscape is evolving, and I’ve also worked to help emerging creatives overcome challenges and move towards their goals.

Photography can be a really isolating industry, so it felt important to share some of these conversations with a wider group, to start an honest and direct dialogue about the challenges that image makers face. Ultimately, I wanted to start a discussion about the messy issues we often avoid talking about – things that are complicated, political and don’t necessarily have an easy resolution.

“I wanted to start a dialogue about the messy issues we often avoid talking about as they are too complicated, political and don’t necessarily have an easy resolution.”

The last five years has seen great change and flux within the industry. A new breed of creatives is redefining what it means to be a photographer today, and in my experience, the next generation are less interested in big names. Instead, they’re looking to their peer groups for inspiration.This is why it’s so vital to shine a light on the people redefining the medium and shaping the future of visual content.

There are a lot of photography podcasts out there, but in my experience they all occupy a similar space. All male-hosted and focusing on tech or featuring a biographical interview with very established photographers (also often male). The space lacks diversity of all kinds.

In my mind, the old rules no longer apply. It’s essential we open up honest conversation around representation, gaze, awards, the impact of social media and mental health, with people who have something interesting or powerful to say on the subject.

By way of an introduction to these discussions, here are some of my favourite takeaways and moments from The Messy Truth podcast during the first season:

Photography by Catherine Hyland

Catherine Hyland: Growth through continual learning

“Even now I much prefer to be the student than the teacher. I have such a thirst to learn.”

London-based Cat Hyland is a rising artist and photographer who graduated from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in fine art, before completing a Masters at the RCA. In an exceptionally honest conversation, she captures the true commitment and dedication necessary to build a successful creative career. Despite her success, her unwavering drive to continue to learn and build her skills is a true inspiration. This is also something I believe to be crucial for any creative hoping to build a longterm career.

Listen to Gem’s podcast with Cat

Photograph by Alex Coggin

Alexander Coggin: Authorship comes first

“We all have within us the capability to make work that is very specific to our value systems, our upbringing, our visual references, our interests and desires, and if you really pay attention to yourself, you will make work that looks like nobody else’s.”

Hailing from America, Alex Coggin lived in Berlin for many years before moving to London. Stripping back the shiny veneer we all cling to, his work shows us a weird and wonderful truth. We discuss his journey from theatre major to a self-taught photographer, and the importance of creating and shaping your authorship on the work you create.

Listen to Gem’s podcast with Alex

An image from Alice’s series ‘Drummies’

Alice Mann: Fair representation takes self-reflection

“I’m interesting in doing more to collaborate with my subjects, rather than narrate their stories.”

Now working from London, Alice Mann grew up in Cape Town where she went on to graduate with a BA in fine art in 2013. As a white South African photographer making work about her homeland, Alice’s photographs raise a lot of questions about the responsibility of gaze and representation. We discuss how she navigates these issues, bearing in mind her upbringing, privilege and relationship to the country while being motivated to tell more uplifting stories.

Listen to Gem’s podcast with Alice

Campbell Addy: Keep your focus unwavering

“I think my generation struggles, because no one posts their fails. It’s vital to keep your head in the game, keep your blinders on and stay focused.”

British-Ghanaian photographer Campbell Addy is an entrepreneur, visionary and fearless advocate for change. A former student of Central Saint Martins, he shot his first cover for i-D just a couple of years after graduating, and is also the founder of Nii Journal and Nii Agency – a magazine and modelling agency respectively. We talk about all of his creative output as well as his battle with mental health and how he is managing success at an early age.

Stay posted for Gem’s podcast with Campbell

An image taken from Lydia Pang’s recent work on Refinery29 in collaboration with Gucci

Lydia Pang: Embrace change and stay mindful

“It’s a privilege to make work. Holding ourselves and the community more responsible is really important. Don’t fear the [industry] change. There’s never been a more exciting time to make creative work. Images are a platform for real world change and business know that. This is our time.”

Currently based in New York but originally from Wales, Lydia Pang is a creative director at Refinery29. Having graduated from the Courtauld Institute in 2010, she began her career working at M&C Saatchi before moving to the US. As an incredibly talented hybrid creative, her passion and work ethic is infectious. What I love about her is that she’s not afraid to confront the messy reality of surviving and thriving in the creative industry.

Lydia has made it her mission to support new voices and given many photographers their first big job. She’s also another an advocate for constant learning, discovery and evolution – no matter where you are in your career – an ethos she lives and breathes. We discuss the importance of personal branding, the two words every creative loves to hate, and the importance of mindful commissioning.

Stay posted for Gem’s podcast with Lydia

Posted 22 May 2019 Written by Gem Fletcher
Collection: First Hand
Mentions: Alexander Coggin, Alice Mann, Campbell Addy, Lydia Pang, Catherine Hyland

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