Jo Spence's Photo-Therapy

Edited by Matilde Casaglia – Art and Culture Editor –
Artworks by Jo Spence

Jo Spence is a British photographer engaged with documentary and photo therapy, key figure in the art debates scene of the mid 70’s in the UK.
Her current exhibition splits in two parts, respectively hosted at SPACE 129—131 Mare Street, and at the Studio Voltaire 1a Nelsons Row, London.
It is a chronological division: while Part I focuses on her artworks from the early 60’s to the early 80’s, Part II shows her later works, before she died of breast cancer in 1992.

 Her encounter with the world of photography was something completely random. After she left school at the age of thirteen, Jo found a placement as a shorthand typist for Photo Coverage, a small commercial photographers based in Finchley. This was the first time she saw a camera, and it was love at first sight.
The beginning of her career was indeed commercial, where all the images had to be encoded with specific performances, aiming for the professional use of reproducing visual stereotypes.

But this was not enough for such a complex personality. At this stage of her career Jo Spence started to question ‘cultural ideals’ of photography. By the early 1970s, in fact, she was already exchanging her purely commercial relationship with the medium for its political and documentary possibilities.
By creating in 1974 the Photography Workshop, her idea was to set up as an independent researcher. The project was involving a number of activities that aimed to establish a collection of ‘progressive alternative materials’ relating to the production, dissemination and use of photography in all its possibilities.

The Hackney Flashers Collective emerged from Photography Workshop and included a different affiliation of women working within education and the media. The group defined themselves as both feminists and socialists.
As the artist explains to the public: “The photo work which follows is an exploration of our attempts to work through some of this problem by ‘making strange’ the everyday, normalized, institutional practices and codes of ‘the trade’, re-ordered, re-modelled, re-invented, so that their common sense, unquestioned notions become disrupted. We are not trying to show familiar objects in unfamiliar ways, but rather to denaturalise the genres of photography which already consist of fully coded visual signs.”

Part II is the part in which her illness makes her realise the importance of photography, to report reality at any cost.
“Last Christmas, having recently completed three years’ study as a mature student, now utterly exhausted and wondering what the hell it had all been about, I had to go into hospital. Suddenly. 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.”
In response to her cancer diagnosis, Jo Spence produced a diaristic series of photographic montages in an attempt to navigate the complex feelings of anger and fear she was experiencing, and to deal with issues of control, patients rights and alternative therapies.
Spence, in collaboration with others, created a what she defined a personal therapy tool called Photo-Therapy. While producing images she aimed to allow the subjects to represent their own difficult, experiment their feelings from a remote perspective, something that was often previously unexpressed and kept quiet.

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