I first came across Jo Spence in the 1980’s when I was about to graduate from Leeds University in Fine Art. I think the Picture of Health show toured the Pavilion Photography Gallery in Hyde Park. In any case, I remember being blown away by Jo’s work.
Her documentation of her experience of cancer had a huge impact on me as a young woman. I didn’t know much about the subject then, but there was something about the starkness and intimacy of the images that powerfully conveyed the violence and brutality of treatment. It wasn’t just a different way of looking at illness; it was a different way of presenting the female body and the female subject. Laid out with unflinching detail, Jo’s eyes meet the viewer with a defiant direct gaze, refusing to give in, refusing to be objectified, refusing to go quietly.
She was also proposing a different way of making art. One that placed personal experience at the centre of the work. One where it was perfectly valid for art making to be a space for making sense of one’s experience, history and emotional trauma. Jo’s work made visible a female experience that was not visible at the time and it celebrated the personal as a political and socio-economic construct. Seeing the Jo Spence archive at Birkbeck College in London recently, reminded me how radical her work was and is, in it’s political disruption and resistance. It also made me realise that really her work had changed the course of my life all those years ago. It is because of Jo that I ended up going into community arts and working with young people. I took her model for using photography, for example, as a way top explore identity and adapted it for workshops with the young women’s groups I worked with in south east London.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, I immediately thought about Jo. I drew so much strength from the memory of the images she had made. I remembered the documentary footage of Jo in her kitchen with her industrial juicer, juicing cartloads of vegetables everyday. She passed down to a kind of blue print of how I could live with cancer, and more importantly, how I could retrieve my sense of self and agency in a process where I felt like an a object lost in a medicalised machine.
I wish she was still here because I’d like to talk to her, pick her brains and share experiences. But mostly I would love her to know what an important role model she continues to be to me and many other women. So far I have survived two bouts of breast cancer and I am still making work. Thank you Jo.