Jo-Ana is a body of work which examines the mental illness anorexia nervosa and by doing so continues the work of previous projects which have explored alternative relationships with food.
The diaries of an anorexic are visually described through a series of still life images. Items of food consumed by the sufferer together with extracts of text provide the viewer with an insight into the participant’s prolonged struggle with the disease. Personal effects provide further context, allowing the viewer to see something of the participant’s personality rather than focusing on the illness itself.
These commonplace items break down the fourth wall, allowing us a glimpse of the participant’s life beyond the composition: informing the viewer that yes, this is an individual with an illness, but first and foremost this is an individual with a life to live.
Whilst images form an intimate biography, they do so without the participant herself actually being portrayed – inviting the viewer to wonder about her life, her story outside the frame.
Together, paired images of food and text tell a story of a moment in time. The participant’s possessions providing continuity between the two as they bleed out of one image into another. The complete series provides a linear narrative straddling several years.
In each image is contained a detail which is the punctum (Barthes, 1980) – a detail which ‘pricks or bruises’ the viewer’s consciousness, evoking a sense of emotion.
Prima facie Jo-Ana is an examination of an alternative relationship with food. On a deeper level, however, the project is an attempt to reconcile a disease which is more than capable of taking the sufferer to the point of destruction. The theme was chosen largely for personal reasons, having myself been the partner of and carer for someone suffering from anorexia. Anorexia is a disease which destroys so much and leaves many questions unanswered. On a personal level the aim was to answer some of these questions, to gain a greater understanding of the disease and its causes, what makes some individuals susceptible, feelings experienced by anorexics, the tipping point motivating sufferers to seek help, and how recovery feels.
More widely, the following objectives were established for the project.
Firstly, to raise awareness of the disease, and its causes, within the wider community.
Greater public awareness is necessary so that family, friends and colleagues can more easily recognise the characteristics of the illness. Clinical studies have proven that successful treatment and long-term recovery are dependent on early recognition and intervention.
Eating disorders are subject to significant prejudice, with many believing them to be a lifestyle choice. Another important aim for the project was, therefore, to help dispel some of the ignorance that exists in relation to anorexia.
Thirdly, it was felt to be important to help bring the illness out into the open, making it a point for discussion. Most importantly, it needs to become more acceptable for those who suffer from anorexia to be able to seek help.
Finally, in the early stages of Jo-Ana, the participant stated that on many occasions her treatment had become about the illness rather than the person, and that this is a view commonly held by anorexics.
Consequently, ensuring that the participant’s voice was allowed to be heard through the photography became a primary concern, avoiding Jo being seen as ‘other’ (Sontag, 1977).
To convey something of Jo’s personality it was felt essential to incorporate some of her possessions into the images of food and text. This has resulted in a body of work which is inclusive for the participant and not exclusive.
It is absolutely essential that Jo’s personality is represented in the images. This is Jo’s project as much as it is mine, if not more so. Without Jo’s story, and her willingness to share it, there would be no project.
Strip away the context, strip away the personal effects and the images become devoid of the person, rendering it anonymous. Jo-Ana without Jo becomes Ana, and we have made one person’s account say nothing about that person, excluding them to focus solely on an illness which has already taken so much.
So, what exactly is Jo-Ana?
Barthes and Heath (1977) inform us of a signifier, something which is identifiable in an image and which conveys a denotational message, and the signified – the connotational (implied) meanings, ideas or ideologies which the image attempts to communicate to the viewer.
Interviewed in 2012, Francis Hodgson discusses not only the way in which we analyse images, but also the quality of the way in which we do so (Quality Matters, 2013). Hodgson suggests that we frequently perceive and discuss images as being “of something” without attempting to consider that images are also “about something”, an idea which links strongly with Barthes concept of the signifier and the signified.
In these terms, then, Jo-Ana is not a series of images about an illness called anorexia. It is, however, a series of images about a girl called Jo who, for a long period of time, suffers from anorexia before going on to recover.
Authentication is the term used to denote that an image is trace evidence of a subject having existed and this equates to the ‘certificate of presence’ referred to by Barthes (Barthes, 1980).
Scruton helps clarify the situation when he writes: ‘in other words, if a photograph is a photograph of a subject, it follows that the subject exists’ (Scruton, 1981, p. 579).
Further clarification is provided by Tagg who writes: ‘what the photograph asserts is the overwhelming truth that ‘the thing has been there’: this was a reality which once existed, though it is ‘a reality one can no longer touch’.’ (Tagg, 1988).
Visual anthropology is the graphical and written representation of a group’s culture. It is concerned with the study of the production and consumption of visual forms of communication.
Anthropology, however, is concerned with the study of humans, human behaviour and societies both past and present, whilst social anthropology is the study of societies norms and values.
Jo-Ana, then is not an example of visual anthropology, moreover it is anthropology presented visually – recording what were once the private thoughts of an individual, making them available as a source of information for future reference.
Have I successfully met my objectives for Jo-Ana? Have I produced a body of work which will help future generations to understand what anorexia is, and what it is like to live with?
What about the art value of the body of work? Have I produced a body of work which has value to collectors of art and photography, making it something they would wish to invest in? This is certainly an aspect of I want to disappear which Mafalda Rakos recognises.
These are questions which only the viewer can answer. I would suggest, however, that yes, based on feedback, the objectives for the project have been met. And future generations will certainly be able to see what anorexia is and feels like from at least one perspective.
Whether Jo-Ana has a value as art remains to be seen.
Barthes, Roland (1980). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana
Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc (accessed 19 February 2017)
Scruton, R. (1981) ‘Photography and Representation’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 577-603 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343119 (Accessed 29 January 2017)
Tagg, J. (1988) ‘The Burden of Representation’ PhotoPedagogy [Online]. Available at: http//www.photopedagogy.com/john-tagg.html (Accessed 30 January 2017)