Jo Spence

I first came across Jo Spence while studying Women’s Studies at Sheffield University in  the 90s.

Margaret Marshment explained: Photographers like Jo Spence … use themselves as models in images that can be accused of being narcissistic, embarrassing, ugly, to challenge our conceptions of what a photograph is or should be.’ (Robinson and Richardson 1997 p151)

Re-reading this, many years later, and linking it to my learning as a photography student, it reminds me that images are powerful and significant in their ability to challenge conventions by presenting personal experiences as political statements.

Jo Spence documented her death. In doing so, she challenged not only the social taboos around death, but also the norms around women’s appearance, the ‘medical gaze’ and about what constitutes art, or a good photograph.

To me, she represents a stoicism and bravery that I can hardly imagine. She believed that photography should say something.

Photo-Therapy 1984

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982, Spence used photography to document her experiences during treatment and to challenge the traditional relationship between photographer and subject as well as between doctor and patient. Her images document the ‘medical gaze’, and the image below suggests how vulnerable a patient can feel during her medical treatment. Jo Spence’s images give a voice to feelings and emotions as well as documenting medical routines and procedures not usually shared. Her images showing herself naked, marked up for surgery and disfigured afterwards, are very different to the usual images made of women’s bodies.


Jo Spence: Infantilization – mind/body

Final Project 1992

Jo Spence was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1991. She determined to document her last days through her photography. Here is an image showing Spence standing by what appears to be an empty grave; the implication that she will soon be buried. This honesty and acceptance and determination to record the unmentionable is remarkable; a challenge to social norms that is initially (to me) quite horrific, but very powerful. In her Final Project, Spence presents her own body ‘returning to nature.’ She shows herself immersed in water and in fields, ‘floating in rocky landscapes and streams of water or clouds’.


Jo Spence: Final Project 1991-92

Spence continued to make self-portraits right to the very end. She died in 1992.

‘(Her) control of the representation of her body, even as she lay dying, is a monument to her radical creative process and a testament to her refusal to bow to what is deemed an appropriate image of a woman’.


Spence, J: Biography. At: Accessed 26 December 2016

Robinson and Richardson (eds) (1997) Women’s Studies (2nd edition). London. Macmillan


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