Photographer, filmmaker, anthropologist: Interview with Gemma Lynch

Gemma Lynch has been passionate about visual storytelling since she was a teenager. She spent almost 10 years working in various roles in the film/television industry and was Head of Production for the Fondazione Sardegna Film Commission for 5 years. With her studies in Visual and Media Anthropology at HMKW Berlin, she now has the chance to enhance her practical skills with a theoretical background. In the interview she told us more about her creative projects, her practical experiences as well as the highlights of her studies so far.

Gemma Lynch is in her 3rd semester studying the Distance Learning program Visual and Media Anthropology at HMKW Berlin.

Gemma Lynch is in her 3rd semester studying the Distance Learning program Visual and Media Anthropology at HMKW Berlin.

You are a British photographer in Italy who works in film and is now starting on an archival photo project. That sounds pretty amazing! Tell us more about your recent project!

I had been working on a PhotoVoice project with Nigerian refugees a couple of years ago and the whole experience really flipped a switch for me about how to go deeper into storytelling and the representation of mobility of trauma. My archive project started as a multi-disciplinary idea about using neuroscience research and photography when applied to trauma and memory. It was sometime later that I started working with my enormous family archive and realised it fit perfectly with the story I wanted to tell.

I did a lot of work this year on the mobility of memory, how it alters over time and how place specific memories can blend or co-exist in seemingly unrelated locations. Essentially the project has evolved into a Sensory Ethnography so that now I’m combining archive material with new images that I will create from the research to explore the materiality of recollection and in particular for what this means when studying the effects of childhood trauma in the domestic space.

What are you working on at the moment? And what made you want to make a go for it?

I made a short film for our Poetic Framing course, which is in keeping with the archival project, and I have the immense fortune to be coordinating a small team of animators to build on this existing idea and hopefully create a film that I can distribute through festival screenings. I was keen to push this topic because the focus is on domestic violence which is unfortunately a very current and growing endemic in society and yet remains a taboo. I’m hoping I can contribute something positive by generating awareness and creating more dialogue on the issue. I’m also now writing my first feature length fiction which I had started over five years ago and never finished. I’m hoping to receive a development fund and see what happens!


Could you tell us a bit about how you became a photographer/filmmaker? When did you start filmmaking/taking photographs?

I had access to a darkroom as a teenager at school and I just completely fell in love with the tangible and chemical element of image making. It’s such a visceral experience with digital having taken over, it has become even more niche and precious to maintain. I also studied film and semiotics and was always passionate about storytelling and image making. Having moved to Rome after graduating I started looking for stories I wanted to tell and I made my first documentary in 2013 having gotten some training in the UK on shooting and editing. It was a zero budget, totally homemade project with the help of some friends!

How do you get inspired? And what inspires you the most?

There are certain themes or topics I naturally gravitate towards and it’s a cliche but I’d say mainly from observing whatever is around me and then instinctively following an idea that won’t go away. It might just be an image, a phrase or a vague concept. If I feel like I have a good idea I usually try to elaborate it with friends and colleagues by picking it apart and making sense of it. It helps me enormously to bounce my ideas off of other people. My main problem is having too many ideas at the same time and not knowing where to focus my attention.

What was the biggest challenge in your work as a photographer/filmmaker so far?

There have been and are still many challenges. It’s not an easy market to get into professionally and trying to do it in a foreign country comes with its own unique set of obstacles. But honestly, the main challenge, (as for most people trying to work in the industry) is finding funding to sustain my projects. This means that paying the bills comes from other work that I might be less invested in and therefore I have to prioritise those responsibilities and treat my personal projects as secondary. Being inherently quite shy doesn’t help either! You really have to believe in your project or no one else will either.


Why did you decide to study „M.A. Visual and Media Anthropology”?

I had many reasons, it started with the acknowledgement that I hadn’t prioritised my education when I was younger because I was anxious to get out of the UK and get working. Then as the years passed I felt that I had a knowledge gap from a theoretical perspective that I really wanted to address and I had worked on a few projects that threw up some ethical questions for me that I didn’t really know how to manoeuvre. I had also been working for a number of years in production and you get used to juggling several projects at once but none have your full attention and it can make it difficult to sustain interest and stay curious. My own projects were getting less and less attention from me so I wanted to understand how to reconnect to and improve my artistic process and research skills.

I also wanted to be able to discuss creative ideas in depth and create networking opportunities. I certainly never focussed on one project at the level of detail I am now, and that is thanks to the masters.

In your opinion, from which experiences/courses/projects during your studies will you benefit the most in your future career?

Space and Place has had a massive impact on me and I think it will remain an integral part of the way I think about my work and life in general. Documentary Photography has also been fundamental in giving my ideas more structure and scope. I find that I work better when I am forced to respect a deadline, otherwise its too easy to procrastinate and struggle to make tangible progress. Having papers due or films to deliver on time means you work to a schedule and then you have a finished project that you can share and reflect on. Generally speaking, I think I also have a much better attention span now, being forced to read so much and go deeper on singular topics is an experience that I have found immensely useful and is a transferable skill.

What do you like the most about your studies/the study program in general?

I like the way it makes me think. I feel challenged and also at home with the material which is how I know it was the right choice.

It’s sometimes very difficult, especially in terms of time organisation and managing work and studying simultaneously. It’s also somehow connected the dots between many projects and roles I have had over the years which gives me a stronger sense of direction. It’s also been great to make new friends and get inspired by the fascinating projects my cohorts are working on -and hopefully I’ll get to see them in person at some point!

What are your plans for the future?

Maybe its the effect of Covid or just growing older but I don’t really like the idea of having plans for the future at the moment because it sets an expectation that can box you in or make it feel like failure when it doesn’t materialise. Often in life I think we all feel the space or even friction between where we are and where we’d like to be, and it can cause a lot of discomfort and frustration. So, ultimately I would just love to keep learning and growing in my practice and hopefully make projects that resonate with people. Who knows, maybe even a PhD at some point.

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. We wish you all the best for your future projects and your VMA studies.