Jo Spence was a feminist photographer whose work is being exhibited in Stills in Edinburgh until 16 October.
Before becoming an artist, Spence had worked as a commercial photographer during the 60s, but became disillusioned with the work she was required to produce and the ethics of photographing children within the then-current media culture.
As part of her response to this experience she began using her own body as a performative tool, as well as using dolls to depict situations and explain concepts. “We have used dolls to avoid the problems of exploiting as ‘camera fodder’ those whom we photograph,” she wrote at the time. “Where it was not possible to use dolls we have used ourselves or asked people to ‘perform’ for the camera.”
This hyper-awareness of the camera and of the media’s role to influence public thinking was explored within the exhibition through her work with The Polysnappers – a group of female photographers of which she was part. Their collaborative ‘Family, Fantasy, and Photography’ series was highly critical of media representations of women and children, using a collage of magazine clippings, dolls, and text to explain the power dynamics and economic forces behind the images.
Other works explored domesticity, the mother-daughter relationship, and – on a more sombre note – her struggles with breast cancer and leukemia, which eventually took her life in the early 90s.
What was clear in her work was a commitment to using the camera to explore highly personal subject matter and a direct, confrontational disregard to be polite about it. In the piece above, ‘Middle Class Values Make Me Sick’ she writes: “If I don’t need to please my parents any more, why the fuck should I worry about pleasing you middle class bastards?” Why indeed.
Words: Ana Hine
Image: Jo Spence