Jo Spence: The Feminist Photography of a Cultural Sniper

Patrizia Di Bello

Jo Spence was a British writer, educator and photographer – although she was quite ambivalent about being termed an ‘artist’. In fact, she much preferred to call herself a ‘Cultural Sniper’. But instead of brandishing a gun, Spence used her camera to shoot and expose issues in culture.

One of the first woman photographers to confront the anxiety of seeing oneself in photographs, this HENI Talk explores how Spence targeted the media’s representation of women – always coded as young, plucked and perfectly made-up – by laying her own body on the line.

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There is something about her work that even today has a power almost to make one squirm inwardly at the courage with which she can act, but also the courage and the humour with which she can act – and not exactly make fun of herself, but almost defy the audience to make fun of her.

She was really one of the first women artists or women photographers that really started to confront the anxiety of seeing oneself in photographs.

[Voice of Jo Spence]
I think the problem with photography as it stands now is that when we look at a picture of ourself, we try and make it do too much work. I think the whole of our society tries to push us to a notion of coherence in who we are.

Jo Spence was a British photographer, a writer, an educator – although she was quite ambivalent about the name ‘artist’. She took on the definition of ‘cultural sniper’. The idea of the cultural sniper is that she was aware that as a single person, as an individual person, she could not change a culture. But, like a sniper, what she could do is use her skills, with the camera, with words, and with people, to actually target specific areas, which in a sense she could take down.

She has this brilliant self-portrait of herself as a Cultural Sniper, although she hasn’t got a gun, she’s got an old-fashioned sling. Maybe as a reference to David and Goliath. This sense that even somebody quite small can actually have important consequences.

She was from a working-class family, both her parents worked in factories and she left school at 13. But her parents wanted something better for her and sent her to secretarial college. And in the 1950s she became a secretary in a photographic studio.

[Voice of Jo Spence]
I joined a camera club and started to specialise in photographing ‘cute’ children. And from that I went straight into being a high street photographer. And I worked for a while in advertising. And as a high street photographer I was producing ‘happy families’ and doing portraits, passports – anything that came through the door basically, ’cause you’ve gotta pay the rent. And, of course, the main big money-spinner was weddings. And at some point, I gave all that up, I just got fed up with it, and I became a documentary photographer. But it became a real problem for me because I was beginning to question the ethics of photographing other people in order to make a living out of it.

So, as somebody who was reflecting on the role that photography took in society, and also reflecting on her own practice, past and present, as a photographer, she started to look at her own family album. And in doing that she started to open the family album to things that are normally excluded. So, for example, the bad photographs, the photographs taken late at night when she’s tired, or photographs taken for an insurance claim when her faced had been singed in an accident at home.

[Voice of Jo Spence]
And what it seems the family album does is to tell the story from the adults point of view, but particularly from a patriarchal point of view – and I’ve looked at thousands of family albums but there doesn’t seem to be much difference: they’re saying to the family ‘look, we did the best we could for you as kids’ And, in a sense, it’s telling the story in that way, all the highlights and the ideal parts, that creates a whole set of gaps and absences that you can’t fill the rest in.

The photographs that were coming from outside would inform the photographs that were taken or desired for the family album. And so, women’s magazines or photography magazines where women are always coded in certain ways. Slim, desirable, young, plucked and made-up.

[Voice of Jo Spence]
The whole picture that really the press hinged onto was the one of me as a 45-year-old nude lying on my stomach like a baby. But I thought that if I showed that I wasn’t slim and lovely and that I do wear glasses, nude’s never wear glasses you see, so that, I was trying to say that I don’t mind conforming to the conventions, but I want to have some control over them. I’m going to leave my glasses on and I’m not going to hide things. And hopefully that way I wouldn’t be a sex object. But I think that’s debatable.

This was actually quite a brave act. The idea of having photographs of oneself put on display, photographs from the past, good photographs, bad photographs, was quite an unusual thing to turn into a public statement. One of the sources of inspiration was Bertolt Brecht. He juxtaposed news photographs of war with poetic texts that commented critically. So that technique applied to the family album meant she started to caption the photographs not just as they would have been captioned, but by creating an alternative narrative, a commentary on the desires but also on the stories of pain and toil and strife and sometimes even trauma that the photographs were also in a sense, hiding.

She always saw her work as being not just for the gallery wall but as something to reach other people in ways that were in a sense, educational. And I think that’s one of the things that makes her work really, really powerful.

[Voice of Jo Spence]
It would be really nice if we had more realistic images of ourselves but it’s how a photograph is used that’s also important. And I think that the more people that begin to create their own images and use them in community newspapers, you know, minority magazines, whatever. Or even in their own albums. In a way it’s a tiny wedge against the massive onslaught from the media. I think that if you can stop being an object, if you like, as a woman, and become a subject you can actually begin to think it’s possible to change the world.

The red stilettos are such a powerful cliché of sexy women. Red stiletto, fishnet stockings, they’re almost like overdetermining this idea of seductiveness. But then of course what she does is add the vacuum cleaner, and in a very simple way it’s a reference to the conflicting and overlapping demands of women. Yes, you have to be sexy but also you have to have done the cleaning.

The idea of being sexy but also the investment in being the perfect housewife are actually quite powerful narratives that women find difficult to stop desiring. They actually make them quite difficult to disentangle and make them quite difficult to just deny and step away from.

A really big crisis came in the mid 80s. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was really shocked when she found herself being confronted by a doctor coming in with a retinue of students and simply using a felt tip to mark the breast, saying, this is the one to go.

[Voice of Jo Spence]
Before I went into hospital, I got Terry who I live with to take this photograph of me. And I took it into hospital as a kind of talisman or magical fetish to remind myself I had some rights over my body. I wasn’t sure what they were at the time, but I needed a reminder that I might actually have to say no. What I did to help myself and to lessen my fear was to take my camera into hospital each time I went. I know it sounds a bit daft but it was a bit like having a friend with me. And I wanted to keep a kind of visual diary of something that frightened me. In fact, I had to negotiate to take some of them by lying.

Of course, immediately the photographs became a way to share the realisation that actually part of the journey of recovering from cancer would have to be her taking active control over her own health rather than just relying on doctors. Her work was quite influential as part of a whole movement of patient’s rights. In this body of work, called The Picture of Health, we see Jo Spence standing, looking, confronting the viewer in a gesture that is both protecting herself, to some extent she’s covering her face and protecting her identity but she’s also being quite defiant, almost aggressive. If you’re wearing a helmet when you’re not on a motor-bicycle the assumption is that you might be doing something violent, something dangerous. And underneath the helmet she’s completely naked. And she’s showing off the scar. Again in defiance of what cancer treatment and post-care at the time which was all about hiding. From yourself, from your partner, from other people. She’s also parodying the pose often used in glamour photography because it makes the breast look more pert.

As the title suggests, the Final Project is in fact her last. She was ill again with leukemia and she knew that this time she was confronting death. She was committed to carry on representing herself, but also for others, up until the end. And one of the things that she hit upon was this simple technique of sandwiching slides so that for example she could insert her body in different natural settings. The slides that she was taking during the making of this also referenced past projects. As a way to, in a sense, use photography to go through that journey. To attempt to represent the un-representable.

I think in some ways she would have been really excited by the ways in which now photography can be practised by everyone. But at the same time, she would have been possibly dismayed at the way in which some of the concerns of her own practice about transforming oneself for example, have become co-opted within a capitalist and commercial world. So that transforming oneself is no longer a political act, but it’s a culture of make-over. Because we live in a world where images are so widespread, are so imbricated in people’s everyday life, often blurring boundaries between what is private and what is public, what is personal and what is shared by millions of strangers – that visual literacy is even more important, as something that really should be taught to everybody from quite a young age.

With thanks to…

Birkbeck, University of London
The Estate of Jo Spence
The Jo Spence Memorial Archive
Large Door
Peltz Gallery
Richard Saltoun Gallery
Studio Voltaire

 

Archive

BBC
Getty Images
Pond5

 

Music

9 Lives
Freesound

 

Full list of images shown:

A Picture of Health: Helmet Shot
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1982
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Remodelling Photo History: Revisualization
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1981-1982
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Libido Uprising
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1989
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Libido Uprising Part 1
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1989
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Photo Therapy: My Mother as a War Worker 02
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1986-1988
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Photo Therapy: My Mother as a War Worker 04
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1986-1988
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Photo Therapy: My Mother as a War Worker 05
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1986-1988
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Photo Therapy: My Mother as a War Worker 08
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1986-1988
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Opening Up The Family Album: Episode 1
Directed by Nina Kellgren, Produced by Large Door
First broadcast: 9th August 1988, Channel 4
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

 

Beyond the Family Album: 528 Months Later
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Remodelling Photo History: Realization
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1981 Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Libido Uprising
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1989
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Libido Uprising Part 1
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1989
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Photograph from Jo Spence’s 50th ‘Cinderella’ Themed Birthday Party
Jo Spence, 1984
© The Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive / Birkbeck, University of London

 

‘I Wanted to Believe’ (Cinderella Index Cards)
Jo Spence, n.d.
© The Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive / Birkbeck, University of London

 

Photograph from Jo Spence’s 50th ‘Cinderella’ Themed Birthday Party
Jo Spence, 1984
© The Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive / Birkbeck University

 

Write or be Written Off / Cultural Sniper
Jo Spence collaboration with David Roberts, 1988
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Cultural Sniper
Jo Spence collaboration with David Roberts, 1990
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression
Jo Spence
Published by Routledge, 1995

 

Beyond the Family Album 08
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 10
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Arena: In Their Own Image, Part 1: Facing up to Myself
Produced by Carol Bell and Leslie Megahey, 1980
BBC Broadcast Archive via Getty Images

 

Arena: Putting Ourselves in the Picture
Directed by Ian Potts, 1987
BBC Broadcast Archive via Getty Images

 

The Highest Product of Capitalism (After John Heartfield)
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 09
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 03
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 12
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 15
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 17
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 11
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 08
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 10
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Opening Up The Family Album: Episode 4
Directed by Nina Kellgren, produced by Large Door
First broadcast: 30th August 1988, Channel 4
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

 

Opening Up The Family Album: Episode 2
Directed by Nina Kellgren, produced by Large Door
First broadcast: 16th August 1988, Channel 4
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

 

Arena: In Their Own Image, Part 1: Facing up to Myself
Produced by Carol Bell and Leslie Megahey, 1980
BBC Broadcast Archive via Getty Images

 

Beyond the Family Album 05
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 04
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

‘5 Ways of Looking at Jilly’
‘Work (Part II)’ at Studio Voltaire
Photo: Andy Keate, 2012
Courtesy of Studio Voltaire and The Jo Spence Memorial Archive

 

Arena: In Their Own Image, Part 1: Facing up to Myself
Produced by Carol Bell and Leslie Megahey, 1980
BBC Broadcast Archive via Getty Images

 

Cover of ‘War Primer’
Bertolt Brecht, edited by John Willett
Published by Verso, 2017

 

War Primer
Bertolt Brecht, edited by John Willett
Published by Verso, 2017, p. 47

 

Beyond the Family Album 06
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Beyond the Family Album 16
Jo Spence, 1979
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Arena: In Their Own Image, Part 1: Facing up to Myself
Produced by Carol Bell and Leslie Megahey, 1980
BBC Broadcast Archive via Getty Images

 

Libido Uprising Part 1
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1989
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Libido Uprising Part 2
Jo Spence collaboration with Rosy Martin, 1989
‘Work (Part II)’, Studio Voltaire
Photo: Andy Keate, 2012
Courtesy of Studio Voltaire and The Jo Spence Memorial Archive

 

Arena: Putting Ourselves in the Picture
Directed by Ian Potts, 1987
BBC Broadcast Archive via Getty Images

 

Cultural Sniping: Photographic Collaborations in the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive
Install shot: Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck, University of London, 9th March – 28th April 2018
Courtesy of The Jo Spence Memorial Archive

 

Narratives of Dis-ease: Exiled
Jo Spence, 1990
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Remodelling Medical History (Cancer Shock)
Jo Spence, 1982
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

A Picture of Health: Helmet Shot
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1982
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

The Final Project: What 1991 felt like… (most of the time)
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1991
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

The Final Project (Graveyard 1)
Jo Spence, 1991–1992
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

The Final Project (Graveyard 2)
Jo Spence, 1991–1992
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Untitled (legal reconstruction)
Jo Spence, c.1973–1975
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

The Final Project (‘End Picture’ Floating)
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1991–1992
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

The Final Project: Face
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1991–1992
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

The Final Project (Various 6)
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1991–1992
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

Arena: In Their Own Image, Part 1: Facing up to Myself
Produced by Carol Bell and Leslie Megahey, 1980
BBC Broadcast Archive via Getty Images

 

The Final Project (Mask 3)
Jo Spence collaboration with Terry Dennett, 1991 – 1992
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© The Estate of Jo Spence

 

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