Born 1934 London, England
Died 1992 London, England
Jo Spence was a British photographer, writer, cultural worker, and photography-based therapist. Her career began as a commercial photographer, but she shifted her practice in the 1970s to produce documentary photography with socialist and feminist themes. As a member of the Hackney Flashers photography collective (1974–80), Spence made visible the invisible aspects of working-class women’s lives through photomontage.
In 1982, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer. She documented her subsequent battle with the disease through photographic self-portraiture. ‘The Picture of Health?’ (1982–1986) series subverts idealised images of the female body whilst constituting a tool (phototherapy) to come to terms with and regain control of the body in response to the accepted authority of modern medicine. In both these capacities, the traditional photographer/subject relationship is disrupted through photography. Spence continued to document her illness to the end, culminating in ‘The Final Project’ (1991-92) series.
In The Picture of Health: Helmet Shot (Crisis Project), Jo Spence is photographed by her close friend and collaborator, Terry Dennett. Overall, the image manifests the uncomfortable medical taboo of cancer with the mutilated female body, resonating with Spence’s wider interest in making absences and silences visible in order to initiate discussion, and the use of photography to claim back personal identity.
Spence had already challenged advertisement depictions of women by highlighting their artifice in the series ‘Remodelling Photo History’ (1981–2), but The Picture of Health: Helmet Shot (Crisis Project) continues this exploration in relation to medical taboos. In contrast to a demure feminine shyness, her direct stare shatters the traditional photographer/subject relationship and notion of cancer patient as helpless victim, whilst her armpit hair and scarred breast subverts the idealised female body. The awkwardly man-made and ‘masculine’ motorbike helmet disrupts the art historical stereotype of the female nude as overtly feminine and at one with nature.