Spence referred to herself as an educational photographer in homage to Bertolt Brecht; her direct, often confrontational style was intended to be both pedagogic and emotive. For Spence, photography should be informative, and it should be noted that her emergence as a photographer paralleled an increasingly politicised art world. Figures such as Allan Sekula and Victor Burgin (who would later go on to teach Spence) were informed by critical theory and made photographic work that questioned representation and documentary forms.
In 1979 Spence made ‘Beyond The Family Album’ for inclusion in ‘Three Perspectives...’, bringing together many of her major concerns. It addressed the underrepresented aspects of family life, including divorce, illness and strained relationships (particularly mother and daughter). In these works Spence sought strategies of self representation that apposed the prevailing orthodoxies and normalised codes of behaviour that were expected of her.
‘Remodelling Photohistory’ (1980-82), made in collaboration with Terry Dennett, reworked genre photography with lessons learnt from Augusto Boal. Spence attempted ways of working that made the image ‘strange’ through conflating disparate and opposing iconography including landscape, portraiture and ethnographic traditions. This was also the first time that Spence questioned the assumption of naturalism within photography through role-play and performance.
Not long after, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer. Much of her subsequent work was a response to her treatment by the medical establishment and her attempt to navigate its authority through alternative therapies. Work such as ‘Cancer Shock’ (1982) and ‘The Picture of Health?’ (1982-86) present Spence’s concerns through photo narrative, montage and performative re-staging of personal trauma.
In 1984, alongside Rosy Martin, Spence developed ‘Photo-Therapy’, adopting techniques from co-counselling. The considerable achievement of Photo-Therapy was to invert the traditional relationship between the photographer and the subject. If historically the subject had little control over their own representation, Photo-Therapy shifts this dynamic. The subject was able to act out personal narratives and claim agency for their own biography.
In 1990, after returning from work commitments abroad, Spence was diagnosed with leukemia, an illness that would claim her life in 1992. ‘The Final Project’ was intended as her retirement work and is formed by her response to the illness. Death-like iconography pervades the photographs, from Mexican Day of the Dead imagery to double exposures created from previous works (when Spence was too ill to travel). Up until her final moments Spence was still probing at the potential of photography to articulate the ‘unrepresentable’.