On 25 October I attended a study visit at the Wellcome Collection, consisting of work by Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery.
The work on display could be divided up into the phases of her life. She had been working for a photographer, and then moved on to become a photographer in her own right, and had been working for some time before she produced the images on display at the exhibition. She was a feminist, and a member of the Hackney Flash. An extract from the Hackney Flash website outlines the purpose of the group:
The Hackney Flashers, a women’s photography collective, was formed in 1974 and remained active until 1980. It was started by a small group of photographers and an illustrator with the purpose of making a photography exhibition about women at work – part of a trade union event celebrating 75 years of union activity in Hackney, East London. The group eventually also included a designer, a writer and a book editor. Over time members described their individual political positions as feminist or socialist feminist.
https://hackneyflashers.com/2014/03/19/welcome-to-the-hackney-flashers-website/ [accessed 26/10/19]
Beyond the Family Album
In this series of photographs Jo Spence aimed to address family issues, not normally shown explicitly in family photographs, such as divorce, strained relationships, absences, illness. She wanted to take control of how others see her, not as a result of a family photograph taken by someone else.
Jo Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982. She recalls the day she was told of this: a doctor walked into the ward, followed by a group of student doctors, and told her in what she felt was a very matter-of-fact way that she had cancer and her breast must be removed. Spence was very angry at this treatment both because of the way she was told, without giving her any options, and as it was her body, she should have been able to make the final decision. She took a photograph of herself with the words: “Property of Jo Spence” written across her breast, and this photograph entitled “A Picture of Health: Property of Jo Spence?” accompanied her into hospital when having a lumpectomy.
Coming to Terms with the Diagnosis
Jo Spence spent the following years investigating alternative medicines and therapies. She shunned the convention treatment available at the time. During this period she took a number of self-portraits, documenting her feelings and state of mind. Some said she was brave and courageous to do this, but she didn’t feel that way. She just felt that she was expressing her feeling, and this help her come to terms with the outcome.
Jo Spence was diagnosed with leukemia in 1991 and during her final two years she worked with her long time collaborator Terry Dennett to create a series of photographs documenting her decline and finally her death. Terry Dennett created one last image of her appearing to float in a field, returning to nature.
In her 12 part mini series: Revisiting Genesis, Oreet Ashery explores the way in which people can become marginalised when seeking treatment for illnesses. She felt that this could be due to the type of illness, the person’s sexual orientation, or culture. She also explores how companies may try to exploit families even after a loved ones death. In the mini series she acts out a play in which actors are invited (by Genesis) to create a video of themselves or a representation of themselves to be shown to their families after death.
Ashery also created a documentary video of her father’s last few years up to and including he death. This prompted much discussion within our group following the viewing, as some felt that it was intrusive. I felt that her father was happy to appear in the video at the beginning when he was fully coherent, and that he knew the filming would continue until he death, so did not believe it to be intrusive although I was not certain of its artistic value, rather more a personal record of a loved one’s last years.