In the January issue of ‘Digital Photographer’ I came across an article called ‘A photograph is worth a thousand words’ about how PhotoTherapy and therapeutic photography techniques are used to help people to deal with psychological and emotional issues through the medium of photography. Whilst PhotoTherapy uses specially trained therapists to help clients work through issues, it is suggested that therapeutic photography is less formal and can be embarked upon by the individual themselves. The article cited Jo Spence as an example of someone who had used this approach to record her fight with breast cancer and later her last years, during which she battled leukaemia. Jo is described in the article as a highly regarded photographer and further research tells me that she was originally a commercial studio photographer and teacher. She became bored and disillusioned with this genre of work and became one of the founder members of the Hackney Flashers, a collective of feminists, socialist and documentary photographers based in East London.
I have actually found very little of Jo’s work on line other than the record of her diagnosis and ongoing journey with breast cancer but this is very close to my own heart at present having gone through it myself in the last 15 months and what caught my interest in the first place. Usually when you review and critique the work of others, you would expect to comment on the techniques used and why the images worked or didn’t work for you and the measure of whether or not a picture works for me, might have been whether or not I would hang in on my wall! The photographic skill of the photographer is totally irrelevant in this series of pictures, they are very personal and hard hitting, maybe too hard hitting for some. Composition and depth of field do not come into it and in fact not all of the pictures have been taken by Jo, in some cases she persuaded reluctant hospital staff to take the pictures for her, for example in the photograph of her having her first mammogram. I found myself reliving the whole experience as I looked at these images, the discomfort of the mammogram, the sound and pressure of the biopsies being taken, being marked with felt tip pen before surgery, the diagnosis, the first time I looked at my scar after surgery.
Most of Jo Spence’s work is described as being ‘issues based’ and for her, one of the issues was that she felt that patients were ‘routinely infantilised and placed in a position of powerlessness’ by the health professionals and this project was her attempt to record what was happening to her and take responsibility for her own body. She had already done quite a lot of work on therapeutic photography, none the less, she must have been a very determined and focused person to be able to take this on board whilst being diagnosed with the one disease that most women dread. I could no more have documented my journey and made decisions about my treatment in the early stages than fly in the air, the whole thing was just too overwhelming. Maybe to some extent patients are infantilised and maybe that’s why!
So did this series of pictures work for me? They couldn’t not because they tell such a compelling story and one that is very relevant and current to me. They also raise awareness of breast cancer and some the issues patients who are diagnosed have to face. I have never taken much notice of documentary photography in the past but maybe the key is that the subject has to be of interest to you. Jo Spence’s work certainly does, so much so that I have ordered her book, Beyond the Perfect Image, from Amazon. http://hosted.aware.easynet.co.uk/jospence/index.htm [accessed April 2011]