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Jo Spence (15 June 1934, London – May 1992) was a British photographer. She began her career in the field of commercial photography but soon started her own agency which specialised in family portraits, and wedding photos. In the 1970s, she refocused her work towards documentary photography. Many of her works were self-portraits about her own fight with breast cancer. During her prolific photography practice, she became known for her politicised approach to her art form, with socialist and feminist themes throughout her career.
Jo Spence was born on 15 June 1934 in London to working class parents. Before she became a photographer, she was a writer, cultural worker, and a photo therapist. She started off as a wedding photographer and ran a studio from 1967–1974. Soon afterwards, she began documentary work in the early 1970s, motivated by her political concerns. Both a socialist and feminist, she worked to represent these issues through her practice of photography. She was involved in setting up Photography Workshop (1974), a group focused on education and publishing, along with the socialist historian of photography Terry Dennett and Camerawork magazine (1976). She was also a founding member of the Hackney Flashers (1974), a collective of broadly feminist and socialist women who produced exhibitions such as 'Women and Work' and 'Who's Holding the Baby'.
In 1979, Spence studied the theory and practice of photography at the Polytechnic of Central London with photo theorist Victor Burgin. She gained a first class Honours Degree and changed her previous opinions and ways about photography. During the late 1970s and into the early 1980s her work became more focused on themes of domesticity and family life. In a companion piece for Beyond the Family Album, Public Images, Private Conventions she wrote on how she wished to examine, "the question of who represents who in society, how they do it and for what purpose."
In 1982, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since her diagnosis, Spence started to focus on identity, subjectivity, mental and physical health. During her tenure as a photographer, she maintained a career as an educator, writer, and broadcaster. She later died in London on May 1992 from leukaemia. Terry Dennett, who was a former collaborator and friend of Spence, is currently the curator of Jo Spence Memorial Archive.
About her work
Children's Rights Workshop
In 1973, Jo Spence got involved in setting up a group called the Children's Rights Workshop, which set up a children's book project and reviewed picture books. "We got interested in the ways photography constructed views of childhood and with an Arts Council grant put an exhibition on the road entitles Children Photographed which explored various photographic styles. This was the first exhibition that I had anything to do with"
Jo Spence co-founded the Photography Workshop with Terry Dennett in 1974 as an "educational research, publishing and resource project." The Workshop put on several exhibitions which Spence and Dennett were collaborators, such as "Remodeling Photo History" (1982) and Remodeling Medical History". (1982–1989)
A Picture of Health?
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"A Picture of Health?" is a body of work in which Jo Spence responds to her disease and treatment through photography, channelling her research and feelings about breast cancer and orthodox medicine into an exhibition.
This important exhibition formed the basis of a number of articles and educational talks. Her work raises several important issues based on her experience of cancer treatment, offering a unique insight of a patient's perspective for those in the medical profession.
She was particularly interested in the power dynamics of the doctor/patient relationship and the role of the healthcare institution in the infantilisation of patients.
"Passing through the hands of the medical profession can be terrifying when you have breast cancer." <citation needed>
The photograph of her, taken whilst having a mammograph done, exemplifies her vulnerability, as semi-naked, she literally has to place her body under the control and scrutiny of this machine.
Jo Spence responded to this by deciding to document what was happening to her through photographic records, thereby becoming the active subject of her own investigation, rather than the object of the doctors' medical discourse.
Following a lumpectomy she decided to undertake a holistic approach to managing her illness, and opted for Traditional Chinese Medicine in preference to undergoing radio- and chemotherapy. In conjunction with this she used phototherapy (literally using photography to heal) to tackle the emotional crisis which suffering from cancer created for her.
Through phototherapy she explained how she felt about her powerlessness as a patient, her relationship to doctors and nurses and her infantilisation whilst being managed and processed by a state institution. This work included photos of her dressed as an infant, and to some extent echo her feelings about the class struggle, and her fight to stand as an individual, on an equal footing with those who hold power in our society.
In one picture she added documentary photos into images of her fragmented body which had been written on and staged for the camera in a phototherapy session. The aim of this was to bridge the gap between her work done on health struggles and that done on the body as an image, in an attempt to understand these different spheres. This appears to draw parallels with the fragmentation and compartmentalisation of the body, both by the medical profession and the media, where in both cases the essence of the whole, or "real" person, is lost.
The representation of the body, particularly the female form in sickness and health, was of special concern to Jo as both a patient and a feminist.
The history of art has always been concerned with images of the female body, typically viewed as a passive object by an active subject, the male artist. This is a pertinent issue today with the advent first of photography, and subsequently the mass media.
Remodelling Photo History 1982
Much of Jo's work has been a critique of this process in which the female form is viewed as an object of pleasure for the male. Her work with Terry Dennett "Remodelling Photo History" was intended to draw upon and disrupt this well-known genre of photography.
She was especially concerned with the breast as an object of desire, a device for nourishing babies, and finally in her case of breast cancer, as a possession to be placed in the hands of the medical institution. This is exemplified by her photo of her breast, marked with pen " the property of Jo Spence?" where she appears to question her rights over her own body, using the breast as a metaphor for women's struggle to become active subjects.
Following her lumpectomy, she documented the appearance of her scarred breast, thereby challenging traditional representation of that subject. In one image she documents the struggle between her real appearance (revealing her scars), and the glamorous representation of women (signified by the Hollywood-style sunglasses, and the seductive pose and drape of her blouse off her shoulder.)
Much of her images challenge the view that a normal appearance is deemed socially desirable. Personally, she was against society's imposed pressure to conform and conceal disfigurement. This denies the reality that the individual faces because of the " normal" image they present, again forcing them into a mould as an object rather than an individual.
In the image "Whose Reality is This?" from "Remodelling Social History" a silicone implant with a name and appointment time attached is pictured lying on a journal of medical economics. This implies many things, not least the role of outside interests (such as marketing and economics), aside from the patient's needs. It also questions why a woman should need to have reconstructive surgery (essentially for the benefit of the onlooker/the male gaze) whilst her reality (she has had to have a breast removed) remains the same.
At this point it is important to appreciate the work of Erving Goffman (1968) who studied stigma. He particularly interested in the public humiliations and social disgrace that happens to people when negative labels are applied to them.
He made the distinction between discreditable stigma (known only to the person with the stigmatising condition), and discrediting stigma (which cannot be hidden from other people due to its visibility). In this case people respond to the stigma rather than the person. "Felt stigma" is the fear or worry that such discrimination might occur (Scambler and Hopkins 1986).
This illustrates why the degree to which people feel able to be in control of information about themselves is so important. For Jo Spence this meant confronting the condition that may stigmatise her, and actively revealing it. This defiant gesture allowed her to regain control of her image and become the active subject of her own photograph- an issue central to her beliefs and photographic work.
The Final Project
In 1990, Spence was diagnosed with leukaemia. "The Final Project" was intended as her "retirement work", incorporating the themes of mortality and possible death. Again collaborating with Terry Dennett, the works are filled with deathlike iconography, such as Mexican day of the dead images.
Jo Spence's work has given powerful visual representation to political and social issues which she perceived to have been under represented in the history of art.
Her work is highly regarded for its cultural and artistic value, and has influenced generations of students. She died in 1992.
(During her illness, Jo Spence encountered John Healy, then an unpublished writer working as a gardener in the cancer care centre where she lived. It was through her influence that Healy's memoir The Grass Arena was published by Faber & Faber; it is now a Penguin Modern Classic.)
Terry Dennett, who was a former collaborator and friend of Spence, is currently the curator of Jo Spence Memorial Archive.
Putting Myself in the Picture: a Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography. Frances Borzello, editor. Camden Press. 1986. ISBN 0-948491-14-0
Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression. Jo Stanley, editor. Routledge.1995. ISBN 0-415-08883-6
Seizing the Light. Robert Hirsch. McGraw Hill. 1999. ISBN 978-0-697-14361-7
Photography View: Turning the Lens Inward. Charles Hagen, The New York Times, Sept.22, 1991 (Arts)
"Nature Versus Culture" in The Nude: A New Perspective, pp. 91–115. Gill Saunders. Cambridge: Harper & Row, 1989 ISBN 0-06-430189-3
- "Jo Spence Biography". Jo Spence Official Website. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
- Spence, Jo (1988). Putting Myself in the Picture. Seattle: The Real Comet Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-941104-38-9.
- "Jo Spence Collection". Archives Hub. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
- Watney, Simon (Spring 1986). "Jo Spence". History Workshop. Oxford University Press (21): 211.
- Spence, Jo (1979). Three Perspectives on Photography. Arts Council of Great Britain. p. 60.
- Takemoto, Tina (2009). "Remembering Jo Spence". Afterimage. 36 (5): 13–18.