Gem Fletcher on myth-busting, transparency and accountability in her podcast The Messy Truth

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The podcast that tackles difficult topics around contemporary photography continues to evolve at a time when conversations concerning the ethics of the medium are forefront.

“Photography is constantly evolving. Not just formally, but also concerning how it operates and its pervasiveness,” says Gem Fletcher, as we discuss her now well-established photography podcast, The Messy Truth. The day outside is crisp and bright. We, however, are both at home, speaking over the phone as Fletcher’s toddler squeals and plays in the background. Launched in 2019, when she was pregnant, The Messy Truth is a series of conversations between Fletcher, its host, and a ‘photography personality’ unpacking issues in the contemporary photography industry. They are conversations, not interviews, and are candid to the extent that subscribers have commented on the fly-on-the-wall feeling they get when listening. “Many things are still shrouded in mystery,” explains Fletcher, “so I wanted to create a dialogue about this messy reality of image-making. The podcast should bring greater transparency to what’s happening, but also facilitate complicated conversations about complicated issues, and open up a discussion about what it means to be a photographer today and in the future.”

“Having that distance from the outcome enables the process to be a central focus. I wanted this to be a global conversation as much as it could be.”

A podcast about a medium that is inherently visual might seem strange, but that distance from the final photograph is precisely the point. “An abundance of photography and content, in general, surrounds us, and there are so many practitioners now that, in many ways, we don’t speak as critically about the work as we did when there was a smaller pool,” explains Fletcher. Also a writer, editor, panellist, creative director, and the photography director of Riposte magazine, Fletcher has 15 years of experience in the industry and observes that, “So many of the same questions come up year after year, and not just from emerging talent. The photographers who are successful and established are still affected by nuances in the industry. They are also curious to know more.” 

Image © Eva O'Leary.

The podcast does not focus on individual images. Instead, it concentrates on the processes behind the work and the context from which it emerged. However, links to, and resources about, the photographs discussed feature throughout the show’s notes. There is no expectation for the listeners to explore these. The emphasis rests on the interviewee and the discussion around the medium itself. “Having that distance from the outcome enables the process to be a central focus,” says Fletcher. “I wanted this to be a global conversation as much as it could be. We tend to get very wrapped up in aesthetics with photography. We go through waves of it in different parts of the industry, especially in the commercial realm where we think less about the responsibilities of working with it and what they mean.”

As a queer woman with an understanding of the different sensitivities in the photography industry and photography’s role in society, her perspective on the medium’s transformation is notable. The podcast reflects Fletcher’s interests, while also being a valuable resource for photographers and creatives alike who can hear from people working in different areas of their industry.  “I enjoy that I can be free in that space and that variation reflects my photographic tastes.” The interviews are mostly with photographers, but also directors, editors and curators; we hear from individuals working in fashion and editorial, but also fine art, portraiture, journalism, and more. 

“I’m just constantly trying to be comfortable in the discomfort of that, and knowing that things can’t be perfect because actually, the most important thing is to have the conversation.”

Image © Campbell Addy.
Image © Carmen Winant.

This curatorial freedom is one of the advantages of running the podcast independently, rather than working under a brand or magazine where one might need to “walk that line”, says Fletcher. “I’ll always want to keep it independent, so I can have uncomfortable conversations and unravel issues, which are unjust.” Fletcher is speaking about her interview with Antwaun Sargent, the art critic and author of the lauded The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion, which developed into a discussion about the representation of Black photographers; what that means and how we must strive to do it more responsibly. Other memorable interviews include Leonard Suryajaya: On Resilience, Eva O’Leary: On Process, Carmen Winant: On Liberation, Arielle Bobb-Willis: On Adversity, Chris Maggio: On Intervention and many others — most recently, Annie Collinge: On Ideas, Diana Markosian: On Transformation and Ekow Eshun: On Curation. 

Image © Leonard Suryajaya.

After two years and nearly 30 episodes, both the podcast and its host have evolved. For many people, the events of 2020 put life, as we once knew it, on hold. Those who have had space and time to take a break may have used it to reflect. And, within that reflection, an opportunity to converse and listen, on a global and public scale, has emerged. In the photography industry, people are asking questions and challenging the status quo of commissioning, image-making, and journalism. An increased willingness to share vulnerabilities, both failures and lessons learned, is something Fletcher has observed among her interviewees. “The conversations are much more personal, and not just about the complexity of the subject matter but also about the struggles and the obstacles,” she says. “[The podcast] has become a space for learning. It is also a form of comfort in crisis and chaos for people. And with every single episode, I’m also becoming more comfortable in sharing my own experiences, both professionally and personally, which are all kind of linked-up.” 

Fletcher remains determined to continue having these intimate and complex conversations, as she too learns how to “hold space in that discomfort, in that mess, and be bold within it”. She notes a lecture she watched during the first months of lockdown from the Yale School of Art, where the American photographer and professor, LaToya Ruby Frazier spoke about accountability – “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…This is the most vital learning lesson…There is something catastrophic happening. ” Frazier said, imprinting on Fletcher. “That sentiment always rang true for me but just hearing her say it fired me up to be more accountable: thinking about who controls the narrative; who’s creating work for who; who’s welcome and who’s excluded.”

Image © Chris Maggio.
Image © Arielle Bobb-Willis.

The conversation turns towards looking ahead. Fletcher explains that while she spends most of her time working with emerging talent, who will undoubtedly influence photography’s future, her recent episodes engage with more established names. Photographers such as Alec Soth, Shaniqua Jarvis and Christopher Anderson feature, and Fletcher focuses upon themes of longevity, career development, and sustainability. She finds that just as young artists are anxious about the future, established-names feel pressured to reinvent themselves. “I see so many photographers go through that big career slump where everything just gets a bit messy,” Fletcher explains. “I wanted to start having some conversations with practitioners working today, who have survived a few decades in the industry.” Anderson, for example, began his career as a war and conflict photographer, but today directs commercials for Nike and shoots portraits for New York Times Magazine covers. “From the outside people think ‘that’s such a well planned, strategic career’, but actually, it wasn’t like that at all,” says Fletcher. “I think that’s reassuring, especially in times like this where we don’t know what will happen next, moment to moment.”

As the year draws to a close, Fletcher’s archive of interviews provides a point of reflection in itself, and her ambition continues to drive the discussion forward. Plans to interview Quil Lemons, Laia Abril and Farah Al Qasimi to kick off 2021 are already in place. “Everything’s always a work in progress,” she says. “I’m just constantly trying to be comfortable in the discomfort of that, and knowing that things can’t be perfect because actually, the most important thing is to have the conversation.”

You can listen and subscribe to The Messy Truth via iTunes, Spotify and Acast.

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.