Confronting, intimate, honest and uncomfortable

Jo Spence was the iconoclastic feminist photographer who turned her cancer diagnosis into a mirror for reflection

There are few female photographers as fearless as the late British photographer Jo Spence. A leading feminist and socialist figure in her field, Spence’s work utilised the power of the camera to challenge society on issues of gender, class, mortality, identity, and, perhaps most importantly, her own history. Her first endeavour into the field was as an assistant, and then as a high-street photographer – which saw her shooting actor’s portfolios, wedding days and “cute children”. However, as she grew tired of this “ability to create visual myths”, as she called it, she turned the camera on herself, producing her most prominent work. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982 – although she refused to rank the disease as the most important thing in her life – it’s difficult to ignore the impact that the illness had on her work from then on.

Her life story is epic – outlined in detail in her 1986 autobiography Putting Myself in the Picture – and her images intimate, diarist, honest, confronting and, more often than not, uncomfortable. Yet for Spence, this often grotesque documentation was a necessary journey in reclaiming her body from the illness. To do so, she shunned a mastectomy, as well as Western forms of cancer treatment such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy – which she compared to nuclear warfare for the body (“Eventually I began to see the body as a battlefield,” she said) – and instead turned to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for the physical side of the disease, and to phototherapy, a collaboration with fellow photographer Rosy Martin, for the emotional. A student of psychoanalysis, the latter became instrumental in Spence’s work that followed, adopting techniques from co-counselling, it allowed for a shift in the photographer-subject power dynamic, allowing the subject to take control of their own narrative, acting out their past histories, and ultimately seeing them confront such issues and, as Spence believed, to rewrite them.

Even though the photographer would eventually triumph over her cancer, she would succumb to leukaemia in 1992, a decade after her cancer diagnosis. Though not commercially successful during her lifetime – she struggled with using other peoples’ images for personal gain and happily admitted to working part-time as a secretary to pay her bills – her work is today both critically acclaimed and respected. With her legacy living on through her collection, handed down to her ex-partner and fellow collaborator Terry Dennett after her death, a new exhibition, Jo Spence: A Survey, curated by Karsten Schubert, will feature works from these crucial years, including her self-explanatory The Final Project, tragically unfinished due to her passing. As we showcase an exclusive selection of Spence’s images ahead of the launch tomorrow, below, we chat with Niamh Coghlan, Gallery Director at Richard Saltoun, for more insight into the photographer’s seminal works.

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