Spence was born of working class parents in London, 1934. After beginning work as a studio photographer 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. Aged 46 she studied the theory and practice of photography at the Polytechnic of Central London, gaining a first class Honours Degree. It was at this time that she was also diagnosed as having breast cancer.
"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 infantilization of patients.
"Passing through the hands of the medical profession can be terrifying when you have breast cancer"
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 to 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 infantilization 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.
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.
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.
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