Zeenat Junaid is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at Bahria University in Pakistan
“How do you make leukemia visible?” Jo Spence asked herself.
A British photographer and educator, Spence was a transforming voice in the arts of the last century. Her documentary-style photo albums dealt with themes of class struggle, conformity, and feminism. In 1982, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few years later, leukemia also set in. This cancer was not just in her blood and bones — it had seeped into her existence. It hijacked her arteries of security; it exiled her into grey plains of isolation she had never known before. Her whole career, she had sought to catch that special look — that nuance in a scene that told another story. But could she capture this tyrant phantom of disease now in her photos? How to express something for which words falter?
Jo Spence’s later photos were artistic musings on the horror of the imminent End. She used her old pictures, as she was now too sick to take new photographs herself, and created new albums through a personal montage of frame shifts and insertions. In her ‘Final Project’, she turned the camera lens inward to capture the decay of a body and the Grim Reaper that lurked… in the background, in the foreground, inside her. She represents this using a skull as a prop in the silent photographic contemplations. At times, it is worn as a mask with a still-intact body. Then, it appears in unexpected places — with flowers or while swimming. Sometimes it is a placid bystander; at other times, an inconvenient companion; and elsewhere, its macabre presence is beyond unsettling. There is also a photo in which the skull, like an insatiable monster, engulfs the whole canvas.
However, there comes a time when this prop can be tossed aside and a sense of mystic calm ebbs into the pictures. There is no more hide-and-seek, nor any intrepid confrontations with the skull; the fury falters into a melancholy acceptance. Was this an act of submission? We are left to wonder. Or has Spence already dissected this wretched trickster of cancer and inspected him from all angles? Was this really inspection, or was it introspection? Perhaps her final artwork marks the progression and transcendence to domains of consciousness where she is no longer fettered by the organic perishing of the Being. She died in 1992.
The term ‘disease’ in medicine implies a strict grounding in etiology, diagnosis, and prognosis. It exacts definitions, didactic diagrams, and solemn statistics. But the truth is that disease is amorphous. Like a noxious gas, it trickles into our spheres of consciousness and our social niches and takes forms that cannot be captured by the lens of a watchful physician. It is not visible. Disease is a trickster — a truant. It is the unscrupulous Jinn of fire amongst the Muslims and the Hades amongst Greeks that drags one to the Underworld. It shape shifts into the Marzanna of the Slavics and the Mara of the Buddhists. Disease lives at the crossroads of the living and dead; it plays with duality. It evokes defiance, but also brings one closer to a peaceful reckoning. Squabbling siblings are brought together at its onset while the previously contented may be torn apart. It heralds joyful marriages as well as unexpected divorces. Contradiction is its game.
What does the disease mean to your patient specifically? How is he preparing for his Final Project — a terrifying adventure indeed? What does a man see in the glassy stare of Death? The accumulation of his life, an idea, a deity, a skull, or an Angel? Is he finally coming home, or being exiled to a faraway land? Besides simply ‘medicining’ around, doctors as healers can encourage the terminally ill to probe the multiple faces of death as they, within their contexts of religion and experience, see them. Why not grab a pencil and draw out the inner conversations? Or narrate it in creative text? Or, as Jo Spence did, produce art through photos? It is engagement with these questions that leads one to a heightened sense of life where superficialities are excoriated, only to realize that what one is left with is not shrivelled debris. The Final Project is, in fact, a state of transcendence where one is finally in peaceful union with his emotional and cultural perceptions of life and meaning.
Thank you, Harry. I looked up into Jenny Diski, and was pleased to find another inspirational figure.
Beautifully written and considered piece.
You stirred my curiosity and I had a look at Jo Spence’s later work.
Maybe next – “In Gratitude” by Jenny Diski