Jo Spence

Jo Spence

One of my OCA thought the images in A3 looked similar to hers. After exploring her work I think they have a lot to say about the issues that I am interested in – life, cancer, death and in between – my next assignments A4 and A5.

Three works attracted my attention, ‘Narratives of Disease,”Cancer Shock’ and ‘The Picture of Health.’

Narratives of Disease

“How do we begin to speak about what it is like to live with cancer? How do we find a language to express ourselves? What are we able to say if we turn to the medical language of tumours, drugs, and surgical procedures: a language which is crucial to medical professionals in helping to diagnose and treat cancer but which can only speak of people as mechanical objects? Can we make use of the non medical language of bodies which is obsessed with the idealism of youth and beauty?”  (Spence, 2016)


What do I think about this work? I think she achieves her aim of contrasting medical technology with its relationship to the body but I was not moved by it. To me it was interesting but did not illicit an emotional response. Maybe that is because I am a doctor and familiar with the paraphernalia of health and disease.

Cancer Shock

“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. As he did a whole chaotic series of images flashed through my head. Rather like drowning. I heard this doctor, whom I had never met before, this potential mugger, tell me that my left breast would have to be removed. Equally I heard myself answer, ‘No’. Incredulously; rebelliously; suddenly; angrily; attackingly; pathetically; alone; in total ignorance.” (Spence, 2016)

I love this, and yes it affected me and made me think about the shock of a cancer diagnosis with my daughter. I have been keeping a diary of my feelings and images. I like the use of found images from newspapers to contrast the objective fact of cancer with the personal impact on the person. The other thing here is the series where all the images are different but complementary. I am planning to use diary and other text in A5.

The Picture of Health?

“Whatever processes we deploy as family historians, in telling stories about the past, in making theoretical accounts of our lives, or in reliving our past memories and traumas in the ‘talking cures’ of psychotherapy, the use of photography has been virtually ignored as part of our history making process.” (Spence, 2016)


I like the photomontage in this story board. It has power as I now know that she died of this cancer. Her final images about death are in another series ‘Final Project.’

Final Project

“What upset Jo most about death and non-being was that she would no longer be able to see what was going on in society. She knew that no one could communicate with her, and she couldn’t communicate with anyone else. She would be out of the loop. People, communication and sharing were central to her life.” (Spence, 2016)


She was very ill in this final series which was produced by Terry Dennett her long time collaborator and educator. It is the images connection to her life, illness and death that has power. The image is not oblique and today I think it would be considered to be too literal and obvious and overworked; this was produced in 1992.

What did I learn?

  1. Me and my life can be a fantastic subject
  2. Mix media
  3. It is the more ambiguous images that resonate more with me
  4. There is something about a link from the image to the person – authenticity
  5. This was 1992 – replication is not appropriate


Spence, J. (2016). “Jo Spence: Artists website.” Retrieved 12th January, 2016, from