Jo Spence, Photo Therapy: Infantilization, 1984.
The above link (accessed, 26/10/2020) is a pdf copy of an article published in Spare Rib magazine, March 1978 by Jo Spence, Facing Up To Myself (1978). Available from https://journalarchives.jisc.ac.uk/home (accessed 26/10/2020).
As a photographer, Jo Spence, realised, That a single image could not convey someone’s essence. (Spare Rib 7) However, as an artist, she tried to discover how her sitters; and later on herself, how they saw themselves and how other people saw them.
Spence says that she felt ashamed for the way she looked for most of her life and that she was sexually repressed. Early on in her life she decided that people must break through the front that she projected to discover the real Jo Spence.
She left school at 15 and worked for a photographer as a ‘dogsbody’. Watching the photographer at work she saw how he manipulated people into stereotypes and later when she was practicing photography herself as a portrait photographer she learned that she could not capture a person’s essence in a single image. She would ask her sitters to, “Put on a face that your mother likes”. and “How do you look at yourself in the mirror?” (Spare Rib 7). She decided to stop being a portrait photographer when she realised that she made people perform in the studio in the same way that adults force children into performing. (Spare Rib 7). She wanted to spend long periods with her sitters to really show what goes on. However, her new photos were not popular with her sitters because they did not meet with their preconceptions.
Spence began to think about her own image and of the other women she had photographed and how they had said that they didn’t like the way they looked. Some of these women were in the women’s movement and aware of women’s oppression which Spence found contradictory. So she sent a note to Spare Rib to be published and got ten replies. Spence then formed a group with eight of these people and they called themselves, Face. They discussed their self image and how they saw each other. “There seemed to be a creditability gap between the two views” (Spare Rib 7).
Spence began looking at her image in a wider context and became aware of ‘the look’ the media has created for women – the full faced come-on, a full frontal attack…. “It’s your face that represents you. And your eyes say, I’m available”…. It only recently occurred to me that all my early photographs were about, ‘come-on’…. We are supposed to spend all our time, energy and money on trying to look perfect. (Spare Rib 7). But as Spence points out, we are constantly changing…. “The mirror image shown to working women is totally static. It represents an ageless, classless view of people with different lifestyles and values.” (Spare Rib 8) Spence points out that, pictures of women labelled as ‘problems’ were often used by charities, “These aren’t ‘idealised’: they are very ‘realistic’. But they are always linked to some sort of ‘abnormality’ or ‘deviance’. So nobody in their right minds preserves pictures of themselves looking like that because of the connotations of ‘failure’. (Spare Rib 8) Spence felt that women needed to shift the emphasis of their self image back to a point where it is understood that everything women do has a validity – not just the perfect moment…”In this way we can then start to rethink some of the syndromes or stereotypes that have been thrust upon us. I think we are the slaves of our own idea of that we ought to look like, and by implication behave like.” (Spare Rib 8). Spence says that she started to face up to herself when she looked at random photos that Terry her boyfriend had taken of her. “I feel sure some of them could have been used to raise money for charities! I have also realised now that what I look like at home is different to what I look like out of doors; I have a public and a private face….But I also know that the first person I meet changes the way I look. The photos here don’t show any interaction all the time……Like therapy, it happens step by step slowly uncovering the layers of fear and repression. It’s even harder to get other people – friends and family – to understand that their conceptions of us are stereotyped. (Spare Rib 8).
Spence felt that photography can force a lot of this out into the open and by putting Terry’s photos into the family album she could force her family to see her in a new way. She felt that the photos were not the end in themselves but just a means of trying to understand what she projected of herself.