The Art of Transgression
Book Review by Amanda McKittrick
Published by: Routledge, London
The concerns of Jo Spence's work were wide - covering aspects of class and gender, identity and family, health and bodies. She came from a working-class background and began work as a commercial photographer. In the early seventies she became involved in education and political work using photography as a tool for change. She worked with a number of groups such as the Hackney Flashers and Half Moon Photography Workshop in London. Her life and work changed when she began studying for a degree in the theory and practice of photography, and with the discovery of her breast cancer. Together with Rosy Martin she developed a way of using photography as a personal therapy tool, producing photographs that allowed the subject to control the image and represent their own painful and often previously unexpressed feelings and ideas. From the early Eighties she used her work to deal with issues that touched her personally - identity, subjectivity, mental and physical health. She published and exhibited widely. Her work was both radical and innovative. It had an important effect on a generation of photographic students and photographers.
Cultural Sniping itself provides a valuable aid to approaching and understanding Spence's visual work which is often misleading in its apparent simplicity and directness. I welcome something which places the whole spectrum of her work together to allow links between her different projects or series of work to be followed more clearly. This anthology is about Spence's very ideas, the critical work which underpins (and often becomes) her visual photographic work. Cultural sniper is Spence's self-definition.
Her primary concerns and development of photo-therapy are well documented here. It is a book that has to be studied and explored. The editor's preface admits that the vast output of her work was impossible to collect in a single volume. So Cultural Sniping does not set out to be a collection of her entire work but presents us instead with an anthology. It gathers together Spence's writing from the mid-seventies when she first became involved in 'political and educational photographic work' and material up to her death in 1992. Amongst the writings included are previously published articles, conference papers, notes from work in progress at the time of her death, an extract from her BA thesis and notes and essays from catalogues. The writing is divided into three parts. The first deals with her earliest educational and political work including pictures from the exhibition made with Terry Dennett, Remodelling Photo History (1982). Part Two is quite small and contains few images. It deals with her work on 'health and bodies' which formed the exhibition Picture of Health? (1983). The third and final section covers her work on photo-therapy and identity and includes more photographs.
Most of Spence's work is available in the form of travelling exhibitions and other publications such as Putting Myself in the Picture. All of her work is available through the Jo Spence archive. For this reason there are not as many pictures as I would have liked in the anthology. The images in the book are a small part of the work that is presented. It reads more like a collection of her photographic theory. It does however have the same accessible style as her images with a refreshing use of straightforward English to discuss complex and significant ideas.
What does emerge from this collection is the strong political and emotional interconnections of her 'life's work'. Jo Spence had a strong and committed approach to expanding the ways in which photography could be used in our lives and this is clearly charted. Her work was always taboo-breaking, working from the 'ordinary'. She asked very simple, direct questions - powerful and direct questions that most photographic practice has ignored or failed to uncover. She asked them of herself and of her medium, often coming up with very unsettling answers that move, confront and challenge the viewer or reader. Her work opened up a whole area of debate that has continued to influence photographic practice and theory.
Transgression: an overstepping: an infringement: sin.
Spence's work has always seemed to me to be playful, exploratory, compassionate and challenging. Her willingness to share her knowledge and experience is extremely visible in this collection. Collaboration was an essential part of the way she worked as a photographer. She worked with Terry Dennett, David Roberts and Rosy Martin and co-founded a number of groups. All are represented here. Collaboration is 'to work in association with'. It is an activity that requires another. It is by definition an activity requiring openness and communication - information has to be shared between the parties collaborating. Such collaboration informed her whole philosophy - she believed in art/educational/political action as shared activity and information. In Remodelling Photo-History (with Terry Dennett) the work is explicitly described as "a starting point for discussion". It discusses representations of the female body but its foundation could apply to much of her work. The book operates in much the same way. It explores and discusses to direct people towards their own personal experiences of issues that are important to us all. For many 'photographers' this book and Spence's work is too confrontational. It offers up questions and opens debate, it refuses to provide definitive statements or answers. Much of the book's contents throws the reader back to their own unfinished work - challenging our assumptions and preconceptions, undoing or shooting down deeply held beliefs. Jo Spence is about change 'Who am I', 'How do I know that?', 'How did I get to be that way?', 'How will new knowledge of the past affect my future activity?'
Cultural Sniping presents Jo Spence's practice as a unique combination of critically informed, challenging work which is at the same time incredibly human - work that is of use to us on a critical and a personal level.