Unfortunately,the archive as described and annotated here is no longer available on line. The quotes, summary, and commentary below are nevertheless worth reading. Some images may be found as noted in Miscellaneous below.

Powerful series of self-portrait photographs documenting the artist’s fight against breast cancer, accompanied by a narrative describing her responses to the medical community. In early images, Spence undergoes mammography, lumpectomy, and finally, mastectomy (images 1-3, 5). These "clinical" images provide a temporal narrative of the course of Spence’s "illness," while concomitantly tracing the inter-relationship between the corporal/medical and the artistic body. In so doing, Spence calls into question medical notions of autonomy and ownership, while re-claiming her "right" to the representation of her body-parts.

In later images, Spence rejects Western medicine, in favor of alternative therapies such as acupuncture (image 4) and phototherapy (image 6). As Spence writes: "Women attending hospital with breast cancer often have to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the medical photographers as well as the consultant, medical students and visiting doctors. Once I had opted out of orthodox medicine I decided to keep a record of the changing outward condition of my body. This stopped me disavowing that I have cancer, and helped me to come to terms with something I initially found shocking and abhorrent."

Supporting text by Terry Dennett (Curator, Jo Spence Memorial Archive) at the end of the series of images provides additional excerpts from Spence’s writing, and several useful links to breast cancer awareness sites.


Spence’s photographs document processes of powerlessness and of reclamation. Rendered a casualty of a disease uncontrolled, of her own genealogy, and ultimately of a medical system that ascribes her the role of "patient," Spence uses photography to rediscover her sense of self. In so doing, she destabilizes the prevailing metaphors of Western medicine, specifically those that treat cancer as a disease to be "conquered."

"I have rejected a medical profession whose basic metaphors of disease are those of WAR: to cut, burn and chemically destroy the ’problem’: to get rid of the ’trouble’ (in my case a malignant tumour); to knife it out whilst not encouraging me to ask why it is there." At once "heroine" and "victim", Spence provides no easy answers for those seeking to define cancer as an external enemy. Instead, cancer is both an external disease and a product of the self. Spence claims cancer as her own, in the process of constructing and maintaining the autonomy of her body.

Pedagogically, students might be asked how Spence’s photographs support and read against traditional notions of "disease" or how the placement of the images on the Web affects the impact of the images.


Terry Dennett, curator of the Jo Spence Memorial Archive, discusses Spence's life and work:
A few images are available at the Behind the Curtain blog site:

Primary Source

Silent Health: Women, Health and Representation (London: Camerawork,1990.)