Ywould say all my work has been concerned to subvert dominant images of women; however, the real problem for me has been how to represent the class connotations of this, which is why I am entering the spheres of debates around power.
– Jo Spence
Jo Spence (1934– 1992) was a British photographer, writer, cultural worker, and photo therapist. She has been an integral figure within photographic discourse from the 1970s onwards. She began her career in the field of commercial photography but soon started her own agency which specialized in family portraits and wedding photos. Her early experiences led her to an acute understanding of the mechanics of photography from the practical to more theoretical considerations. In the 1970s, she refocused her work towards documentary photography, adopting a politicized approach to her art form, with socialist and feminist themes revisited throughout her career. Self-portraits about her own fight with breast cancer, depicting various stages of her breast cancer to subvert the notion of an idealized female form, inspired projects in ‘phototherapy’, a means of using the medium to work on psychological health.
Although Spence’s work would later critique orthodox documentary procedures, her early work articulated a desire to create photographs that run counter to the idealized imagery offered by advertising. Throughout her diverse projects, she is well known for her highly politicized approach to photography and the representation of her own struggles with cancer. In 1972 she joined the Children’s Rights Workshop and produced a series called Children Photographed. She then collaborated with Terry Dennett on the publications Photography/Politics: One and Two which were linked to their involvement with the journal Camerawork. In 1974 she joined the Hackney Flashers with whom she created two photo-projects: Women and Work and Who’s Holding the Baby?. Her documentation of her treatment for breast cancer led to her important work A Picture of Health?. Spence’s books include Putting myself in the Picture (1986).
In 1982, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After her diagnosis, Spence started to focus on identity, subjectivity, mental and physical health. She rejected conventional therapy and explored holistic therapy and the personal and feminist political dimension of living with cancer. It was through experiencing the effectiveness of using photography in confronting and documenting her hospitalization and illness that Spence, with Rosy Martin, developed ‘phototherapy’ in which the subject was empowered to control their image to discover and represent unexpressed or repressed feelings and ideas. By working collaboratively the person in front of the camera was both subject and author of the image. Other collaborators/therapists included Ya’acov Kahn, David Roberts, and Dr. Tim Sheard.
Spence began The Final Project upon her diagnosis of leukemia in 1991. It occupied her until her last days. The Final Project looks to cultures that embrace and display death and dying in everyday life – Gothic imagery, Egyptian mummification rituals, or the smiling skeletons of Mexican dia de los muertos. Spence “got to know death”. In place of her own deteriorating body, she used dolls and masks, her own equivalent to the Egyptian shabti dolls that accompanied the deceased to their afterlife. Limited by physical frailty Spence returned to earlier works – mainly self-portraits – superimposing background shots of torn materials, dried surfaces, blood cells, or landscapes, creating new works. They show Spence’s concerns about material and bodily deterioration through the passing of time. Spence presents her own body ‘returning to nature’: being immersed in fields, floating in rocky landscapes, streams of water or clouds. Spence continued to make self-portraits up until her death, asking of her collaborator Terry Dennett to ensure that it “should not be too gruesome a death or near-death, portrait”. Spence’s control of the representation of her body, even as she lay dying, is a monument to her radical creative process and a testament to her refusal to bow to what is deemed an appropriate image of a woman.