“Photography is a gateway to so many different people and subjects” – photographic art director and writer, Gem Fletcher
With a kaleidoscopic skill set that encompasses a wide range of disciplines, it’s hard to pin Gem Fletcher’s job description down. When she’s not building teams and bringing ideas to life on photo sets, or consulting on other brands, she’s writing about up-and-coming photographers for Creative Review and commissioning new work for Riposte. But despite working within a fast-paced industry, being selective has allowed her to steadily build a prolific and conceptually-focused body of work that she can be proud of. We meet the fine art-trained writer and art director to talk ideas, intuition, and imposter syndrome.
Freelance Photographic Art Director, Writer for Creative Review and Photography Director for Riposte magazine.
Senior Art Director, Getty Images (2010–2017)
Senior Art Director, On Agency, Brighton (2004–2010)
BA Fine Art, Nottingham Trent University (2002–2005)
Nike, Nowness, Lenovo, Barclays, The Guardian, TED, The Gourmand, Avaunt, Hunger
How would you describe what you do?
I do a lot of different things, but at my core I’m a photographic art director. Photographers are my clients. I collaborate with them on personal, editorial and commercial work. My approach is really hands on – I work on the entire process from beginning to end. From developing the initial ideas, research, building the right team, on-set art direction, editing and retouch feedback. I consult to help them develop and grow their brand.
I also consult direct for brands, working on a wide range of projects which can include campaigns, brand magazines and curating exhibitions.
I write about photography for a range of publications and have a regular column showcasing new talent in Creative Review. I also recently joined the team at Riposte as the photo director working on the commissioning for the mag.
What does a typical working day look like?
Every single day is different. It’s one of the reasons I love what I do. I could be art directing on set, in the UK, or if I get lucky, abroad. I spend a lot of time researching and developing ideas for current and future projects. When I’m prepping a job, I could be location scouting, casting, sourcing props and going to meetings to finalise ideas and approach. I’m always out and about meeting new photographers, or checking in with my current photographers to hear about new work or planning future collaborations.
Writing is a completely different way of working for me. I need to be at my desk, quiet and focused. It can be a challenge, but it’s something I love doing, and want to really develop.
“Being a good freelancer involves more than great creative work. You need to be able to pitch your ideas, market your brand, manage client relationships and budgets, and think strategically.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
If I’m not on set, then I’m often at home or working at a photographer’s studio or a café. I’m not someone who can sit at a desk all day and stay sane, I need to get out of the house and be in the world.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
My main clients are photographers and they often come through recommendations or from seeing my work online. I have a group of photographers that I have worked with for years. I know them really well, and have a deep understanding of their work and what they want to achieve. This knowledge helps me to formulate projects which reflect these goals. These collaborations are really rewarding.
My client work comes through recommendations or via social media. I’ve got a lot of work through Instagram!
How collaborative is your work?
Extremely. My role is just one part of the process of image-making. A team of people bring an idea to life, and all those skill sets play a vital role.
Building teams that work well together is a crucial part of my job. I have a large network of stylists, producers, set designers, make-up artists, hair stylists and assistants that I draw upon for different projects. On set, everyone’s role is so important. It’s not about any one person – it’s about all the expertise in the room coming together and making something we all feel proud of.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
One of the best parts of my job is brainstorming ideas and pushing myself to find new ways to visualise a subject matter. I also love being on set and the challenge of bringing ideas to life.
Scheduling can be a real challenge. When you have a great idea in the works but struggle to get traction due to the teams scheduling conflicts, it can be really frustrating. Also doing my taxes is pretty dull.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Last July I worked on a personal project called Bokh with Ken Hermann in Inner Mongolia, China. I was keen to really push myself out of my comfort zone and shoot in a challenging environment where I had to think on my feet to try and make some magic happen.
Through hours of research, I found an archival photograph of a small group of wrestlers based in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. I fell in love with their clothing, the energy, the history of the sport and the role wrestling played in the men’s social standing within the local community.
We set about on the mammoth task of working out logistics. The practical elements were reasonably straight forward, flights, visas, translator and driver. We attempted to contact the wrestlers to get some recce and casting shots, but it proved difficult. We had months of back and forward with locals in broken English and in the end we realised it was impossible to confirm everything before we left due to the remoteness of the community. We made the decision to take a leap of faith.
I studied the sport. I read everything I could about it. Examined all the images I could find and watched the few videos of matches which made it onto youtube. I started to break down the moments I wanted to explore, attempting to make as many decisions as possible ahead of time so we could give clear direction on site. I also had to remain flexible as I had no idea what we would be able to achieve once we arrived.
The shoot was ten days of hard work but totally worth it. We created a photo series and a short film that I’m really proud of.
What skills are essential to your job?
Creative leadership, concept creation, visual strategy, research, trend analysis and forecasting, curation, editing, and talent commissioning are all key. Communication, collaboration, trusting your intuition and emotional intelligence are maybe even more important, without them you won’t be able to make things happen.
Are you currently working on any side projects? I have a magazine/zine project in development which I’m really excited about. I’m also working on a short film.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I weirdly always wanted to be an art director. I remember reading about the role in a careers book at school and thinking it sounded good.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
As a kid I was really into music videos, film and fashion. I remember being obsessed with Alexander McQueen and the incredible worlds he created to show his clothes. I also loved all the music video’s Mark Romanek directed without knowing it was all his work. I still reference the ‘Closer’ video by Nine Inch Nails or ‘Got til it’s gone’ by Janet Jackson. He has a unique ability to fuse ideas and genres and make something which feels familiar but new at the same time. I was also really lucky to have parents who always encouraged me to follow my passion.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying fine art taught me how to think conceptually and develop ideas in a rigorous way. It also gave me a deep understanding of art history and critical theory which was a great framework for my job.
“I learn something new on every shoot I work on. Photography is a gateway to learn about so many different types of people and subjects.”
What were your first jobs?
I interned for a well-known fashion photographer for four days and then quit because I hated it. It was all ego and not my vibe. I also spent a couple of weeks at Saatchi & Saatchi which was brilliant.
I started out in a small advertising agency in Brighton. Due to the size of the agency, I was exposed to all aspects of the business not just creative. This gave me a deeper understanding of the industry and the challenges facing other teams. This knowledge has been invaluable. Being a good freelancer involves more than great creative work, you need to be able to pitch your ideas, market your brand, manage client relationships and budgets, and think strategically.
Working in a small agency also allows you more flexibility to work on a wider range of clients and in different disciplines, something which is more difficult in bigger agencies. I really recommend it.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
I had a couple of great tutors at uni who were really supportive. They could see potential in my ability to develop ideas and my final piece ended up being a rough and ready mag. It’s definitely the worst designed mag you have ever seen, but it opened up a whole new world for me.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Every shoot I work on, I learn something new. Photography is a gateway to learn about so many different types of people and subjects.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’ve spent the last two years making films which are an extension of the photography projects I've taken on. This has been a massive learning curve, but I’ve loved having the opportunity to tell stories in a more immersive way.
“The internet makes you feel like you have to do everything fast, and get ideas out there before someone else does something similar. None of this is conducive to making great work.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Imposter Syndrome with a side of anxiety. The industry moves quickly and it can be overwhelming when you’re seeing all this great work everywhere you look. In the past I’ve spent hours worrying about my ideas not being good enough, or what if a shoot doesn’t come together how I imagined it. The internet, social media and our speed of consumption makes you feel like you have to do everything fast, and get ideas out there before someone else does something similar. None of this is conducive to making great work.
What I’ve learnt over time is there is no rush. I started caring less about what others were doing and trusting my own intuition. I focus on projects and ideas that I am really passionate about.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
It is, and also so much more. The industry is constantly shifting and evolving and the opportunity to work across multiple disciplines is now embraced rather than frowned upon. This is really liberating.
What would you like to do next?
I’m interested in focusing more on directing short films. I love the medium and the new challenges it brings.
Could you do this job forever?
I hope so! There are always new photographers to collaborate with and support. The abundance of content makes it more challenging to create work and tell stories that have impact and stand out, but I enjoy this challenge. It forces you to really push your ideas as far as you can.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an art director?
The number one would be make work. You learn more and faster from doing, than anything else. Get out in the world, make connections with people, collaborate with friends. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people for advice or feedback, but be smart about it (be short, clear and concise). Make the most of opportunities, ask questions. Be curious and open.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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