Jo Spence

Lennard Davis also mentioned Jo Spence as an example of an artist using the spectacular gaze to come to terms with bodily changes. Her work, especially The Picture of Health, is richly autobiographical and explores issues surrounding feminine beauty and age, as well as her experience of partial mastectomy. Spence had already experienced health issues in the form of chronic asthma when she was 12, but avoided referring to it in her art: “I learned that it was something people didn’t want to know about, and I hid it” (quoted in Kirkpatrick, 1998).

Spence held the firm belief that photography has an empowering capacity when applied to complex issues of class, power, gender, health and the body. From this perspective she rallied against all forms of hegemony, dominance and control.” (SPACE 2012, p 3)

Spence is widely quoted on her initial ‘cancer experience’: “One morning, whilst reading, I was confronted by the awesome reality of a young white-coated doctor, with student retinue, standing by my bedside. As he referred to his notes, without introduction, he bent over me and began to ink a cross onto the area of flesh above my left breast. As he did so a whole chaotic series of images flashed through my head. Rather like drowning. I heard this doctor, whom I had never met before, this potential daylight mugger, tell me that my left breast would have to be removed.” (Spence 1986, pp 150-152)

It was at this moment that Spence had an epiphanic experience, she realised that she did not possess the right kind of knowledge to deal with her condition “beyond merely reacting negatively“:

“I immediately thought how to be useful—how to turn my illness into something useful.” (Spence 1995, p 196)

So she began documenting her experience of illness and treatment within the NHS, the attitudes of the medical staff and the rights of patients. Her work is a kind of therapy, helping her to deal with the violence done to her in first a personal then a private manner. Her autobiographic work is infused with “an authorial presence that is at once playful, troubling, and powerfully affirmative” (Tembeck 2008, p 88). Simultaneously militant, unnerving and comical, the images are powerful beyond their frames.

Spence refers to her own photographic work as ‘subject language’: “…which allows me to start the painful process of expressing my own feelings and perceptions, of challenging the ‘ugliness’ of being seen as Other. In so doing I cease to be a victim, becoming again an active participant in life” (SPACE, 2012 p 27). She speaks of the personal difficulties experienced in creating this work: “As an artist, I had used my own body to make statements about the history of the nude. But this was totally different — the body I put up on the wall then was not diseased and scarred. Those nudes were about ideological things. Cancer was my own history. So taking this step was profoundly difficult for me” (quoted in Kirkpatrick 1998).

Disillusioned with the health system in general and of the control exerted over women’s bodies by those in the medical profession, Spence also explores issues of control and responsibility for bodily health. The ‘autopathographic’ work also questions and challenges “stereotypical denigrations of sick subjects” (Tembeck 2008, p 87). According to Kirkpatrick (1998), “Spence made visible many fears, attitudes, and realities that were taboo at the time she began the project; the images resonate vividly today, a sign that these things are still not a comfortable part of “normal” life.”

Spence mused on her ‘cancer photography’: “The work is about the process of struggle when ill and acts as a metaphor for all struggle. I think we should try to represent the struggle for becoming well and not just throw up a new breed of victims and heroines” (SPACE 2012, p 37). This struggle for women to have more control over their bodies in a medical sense Spence sees as part of the larger struggle for women to have more control in general. She sees figures in the medical profession (mostly male) as wielding an oppressive authority, but that this power can and should be confronted, challenged, questioned. Tembeck notes that the self-portraits work on multiple levels: “(auto)pathography is perceived as a militant act of situated visibility, as a vehicle for catharsis and recovery from suffering, as a performance of identity, and as a relational outreach towards others” (2008, p 87). The idea that the images are somehow therapeutic as well as informative, and engendering solidarity with others who have a similar condition, exhorting them to be informed and seek out truthful doctors that can provide good treatment (Sontag 1989, p 15).


Some of what Spence says is equally valid in disability: “…I stand in contradiction to those who have the power to repress or deny the experience of others. In doing so they make our experience appear ordinary, robbing it of any importance or potency. If I don’t find a language to express my subjectivity I am in constant danger of forgetting what I already know…” (SPACE 2012, p 29). This to me is what a lot of disability discourse is about – empowerment first of all entails regaining status as a subject rather than remaining simply an object for institutional apparatus to deal with objectively (just another patient, another statistic). This affirmation of an individual subject through autobiography is what Couser spoke of. The ideas of infantilisation at the hands of medical science, and the diametrically opposed positions of hero/victim are also relevant to disability.

“Spence acts out before the camera the difficulty of conforming to what medical sociologists call the “good patient,” one who adheres to regulated sick-role behaviours, including that of wanting to get better. She frames these pressures within the dialectic of being either a heroine or a victim. Through the use of deliberate editorializing, Spence makes a critical parody of the reductive typecasting of sick subjects in the social imaginary.” (Tembeck 2008, p 94)

There is another aspect, whereby transferral of the wounds to other locations (the inanimate dolls) can be seen as an attempt to effect a cure, while the process itself is cathartic, allowing Spence “to transfer the violence enacted upon her onto these insensitive dolls, whose visual mutilations bear potent witness to the invisible suffering Spence endured” (ibid, p 96). While the images that are akin to criminal mugshots remind us about photography’s history of recording the undesirable elements of society, those deemed deviant and in need of correction or removal: the assumed link between disease, deformity and criminality which is still used as a cultural stereotype today.

Although in these pictures Spence’s identity is not actually revealed – her face is not included in the shot. I think this is a commentary on how she was regarded by the medical professionals who treated her – she is no longer identifiable as a person, but merely the embodiment of her illness, a condition that requires treatment. This is also relevant to disability discussion, where the disabled people are first of all identified by their conditions: “[These photographs] show how her marked body and the experiences to which it has been subjected place her within the highly regulated socio-cultural context of the medical establishment, with its attendant (bio)power dynamics. The photographs also point to the fact that such power dynamics are maintained through conventions in visual representation” (ibid, p 97). As Oliver (1990, Ch 4) has noted, the medical viewpoint is partial, reductive and concerned with control and normalising the body and its functions. Sontag also recognised the power of the medical metaphor, particularly with respect to cancer, in providing pretexts for authoritarian intervention and control: “the equivalent of surgical removal or chemical control of the offending or “unhealthy” parts of the body politic” (1989, p 94) – an extension of 19th century eugenic ideas of curing or removing the diseased, undesirable or deviant parts of society. The language used in disease treatment is militarised, as Sontag tells us: cancer is seen as an ‘invasion’ or ‘assault’ on the body’s ‘defences’ by rogue cells, while ‘counterattack’ treatments range from ‘bombarding with radiation’ to ‘chemical warfare’ (ibid, pp 64-65). “More recently, the fight against cancer has sounded like a colonial war” with medical specialists “talking like battle-weary officers mired down in an interminable colonial war” (p 66-67). This seems to accord with the language used by the colonialists Frantz Fanon observed in Algeria: “‘Nature must be tamed, not talked into reason.’ Discipline, tame, subdue and… pacify” (Fanon 2004, p 228).

What is most troubling about such autopathographic images is that they present us with a double edged causticity – that the suffering depicted we can neither do anything to alleviate, nor can we avoid as the natural consummation of our own lives. On the other hand, the photograph acts as more than a simple memento mori, but continues to revive its subjects in an act of continual resurrection:

“This photograph, then, is not just the mark, the document, or the testimony of a once-living individual. It remains filled with a potential that continues to invite this bearing witness on behalf of the receiver—and so, in this sense, the photograph is still alive, in spite of or because of its own multiple deaths.” (Tembeck 2008, p 100)

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