Aspects of Jo Spence’s legacy: reclaiming representation

As I have written about in a previous post, Jo Spence’s work and legacy has many aspects. One strand I would like to pick up on here is her documentation of illness and medical treatment which calls in to question ownership of and representation of our own bodies.

Of her time in hospital receiving treatment for breast cancer Spence wrote that, “it was impossible to show how I was situated within that as a powerless patient, how I knew so little about my body that I had internalized my subjugation to the medical profession”.[1]

Several of Spence’s images addressing breast cancer included writing on her breast, proclaiming, and at the same time raising the question of whether her breast was in fact the “property of Jo Spence?” She challenged the way in which medical treatment can alienate people from their own bodies.

From Putting Myself in the Picture by Jo Spence, Camden Press

This stands in contradiction to conventional representations of women’s breasts, which is often limited to the visual pleasure of the viewer. Instead Spence kept a photograph of her breasts as a kind of magical talisman for herself.[2] The kind of representation this challenged is exemplified in Peek-A-Boob-Too by Stan Austen, a photography book which Spence owned and can be found in her collection now housed at Birkbeck College’s History and Theory of Photography Research Centre.

Peek-A-Boob-Too is made up of images of a woman’s breasts with crude jokes and drawings applied to them, such as “BOOBy trap” and “chasTITy”.[3] The face of the woman whose breasts are pictured remains anonymous and hidden; she is reduced to her breasts which are a blank canvas for corny puns.

On the other hand Jo Spence chose to confront the fragmentation of the body and to maintain a sense of her individuality in her photographic work on health.

Part of Jo Spence's former book collection
Part of Jo Spence’s former book collection, now kept at The Jo Spence Memorial Library – Terry Dennett Collection at Birkbeck. Photograph Angela Stapleford

[1] Jo Spence, ‘Questioning Documentary Practice: The Sign as a Site of Struggle’, Keynote paper for National Conference of Photography, April 3, 1987, reproduced in Documenta Magazine No 2, 2007 Life!, p. 113, pp. 101-117, Third Text, London, 2007.

[2] Spence, Jo, Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political Personal and Photographic Autobiography, London: Camden Press, 1986, p. 157.

[3] Stan Austen, Peek-A-Boob Too, London: Jupiter Books, 1976.

© Angela Stapleford – Community, education & photography, July 2015