The camera as a “revolutionary tool”: Joan. E. Biren on unifying lesbians in their struggle for freedom
In 1971, JEB began photographing lesbians, building a crucial body of work that now stands at 64,400 images. Here, Gem Fletcher chats to her about the transformative nature of her work, her life-long commitment to social justice and the community her practice built.
When I joined my call with Joan E. Biren (known as JEB) about the reissue of her landmark book Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, I had no idea what was in store. The 20-minute standard press chat ran well over an hour as she took me on a journey through the highs and lows of a life fiercely dedicated to art and activism. There were laughs (JEB has extraordinary sharp wit) and there were tears (hers and mine) as we exchanged our own experiences as queer women in different decades. I knew five minutes in this would be a conversation I would never forget.
In case JEB is new to you, the American activist has dedicated her life to social justice and advocating for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. In 1979, she self-published a collection of black and white portraits of lesbians in their everyday lives. We see women at home, at work, playing sports, spending time with their children, laughing with friends and embracing their lovers – all the good stuff. The book was radical in its authenticity, intersectionality, and defiance towards the forces of power that continued to denigrate queer lives. Being out 40 years ago could result in you losing your job, apartment, visa and even your children. These acts of violence were both common and legal, forcing people to stay in the closet or risk everything.
The release of Eye to Eye signalled a new way of seeing, reversing a history of invisibility. To me, this book is iconic. It’s a piece of our collective queer inheritance. It’s a document of all the struggles lesbian elders went through to enable us to have safer and freer lives. Its reissue, by Anthology Editions, symbolises a long-overdue validation of this critically important work.
It’s odd to think that the catalyst of JEB’s career was a selfie. Made with a borrowed camera, she held out her arm and photographed herself kissing her lover Sharon Deevey. This was a revelatory moment, a proud butch who had never seen herself reflected in the images of that time. Despite this being the height of the feminist movement, there were no visions of lesbian life, let alone any photos depicting the nuanced spectrum of feminine masculinity. Any representations in the culture were fake and ridiculous – from highly romanticised images of straight women made for the male gaze shot by David Hamilton to pornographic man-eating monsters in horror films. JEB’s act of self-representation, so significant and life-changing that just reliving it chokes her up, gave her the drive to use the camera as a “revolutionary tool”.
She began to document the lives of LGBTQIA+ people in 1971. “My purpose was to help build a liberation movement, and you can’t build a movement without being seen,” JEB says. “The book showed lesbians being out and made that a real possibility for those who had difficulty imagining it. In the beginning, most lesbians did not want to be photographed. As more people saw the images, they were inspired to come and join the movement. It created a positive feedback loop that evolved exponentially.” Eye to Eye offered a profound beacon of hope, unifying lesbians in their mutual struggle for freedom.
“My purpose was to help build a liberation movement, and you can’t build a movement without being seen.”JEB
For many queer activists, the language of visual art has provided valuable opportunities to seek control and prevent erasure. While photography has a complicated and violent history, the camera has also been an ally, offering a site to present and define on our terms. In many ways, being in front of JEB’s lens at that time was a safe space to work out, experiment or acknowledge parts of one’s identity that were still processing. A method of simultaneously proving existence and moving forward into the future.
You could define JEB’s work as representational justice. That is the life force pulsing through everything she does. Eye to Eye and her follow-up Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front (1987) are both radically intersectional, even today. Her mission was to represent a confluence of many identities that spoke to age, race, class, gender, abilities, geography, and nuances in the labour force and spiritual practice. “I wanted people to find their friends and their lovers in the book so that they could feel reflected and affirmed,” she says. “Representing the broadest range of lesbians I could was a conscious choice that grew out of my intersectional politics even though we didn’t have that term at the time.”
For JEB, the thing that sustains and drives activism is community. From 1979 to 1985, she initiated a touring slide show called Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–the present, affectionately known as “Dyke Show”. The grassroots campaign, which crisscrossed the United States and Canada, told an alternative history of photography centred on lesbians. Women gathered in bookstores, coffee houses, community centres and church basements to listen to JEB narrate and present hundreds of images over the course of two and a half hours. Structured into six chapters, she presented historical photographs by Berenice Abbott, Lady Clementina Hawarden and Alice Austen, alongside her work and that of her peers Tee Corinne, Kay Tobin and Cathy Cade. “First of all, women would be surprised at how many other lesbians lived in their town,” JEB remembers. “The slide show provided a history we could feel connected to, so we didn’t feel so rootless in the current moment. It really brought us together.”
“Back then, we thought we could change the world. We saw ourselves as revolutionaries, and to do that, you have to be an optimist.”JEB
What began as a short promotional tour turned into a vocation, and JEB presented the slideshow over 80 times in more than 60 places. She ran photo workshops empowering women to reclaim agency over their own identity, and many of these images were added to the presentation.
The renowned events became a lifeline for the community, and it was JEB’s care and charisma in animating them that made them so legendary. “I would make cassette tapes of my live presentations and listen back while I was driving from place to place,” she recalls. “I’d listen for when people laughed and keep that in. In the end, it was a mix of art history and stand-up comedy.”
It is this infectious energy and optimism that has sustained JEB’s activism over the decades. Now in her 70s, she is still deeply committed to fighting for social justice. “You have to have joy in your life, or you won’t make it,” she tells me. “Resistance is difficult work. You have to understand everything that is wrong in order to try and fix it. You need joy to keep going.” JEB’s ability to transmute vulnerability into strength helped her find that inner resilience. “Back then, we thought we could change the world. We saw ourselves as revolutionaries, and to do that, you have to be an optimist. We were also young and in love, and both of those things tend towards hopefulness. Ultimately, it’s what the movement achieves that protects us and lets us live our authentic lives.”
“We are daring people to imagine another world into existence.”JEB
JEB continued to make pictures of queer life for two decades. The extent of her archive, housed at Smith College, amounts to 64,400 files and is one of the most comprehensive studies of the lesbian movement. By the 90s, JEB switched her focus to filmmaking, producing and directing documentaries, including For Love and For Life (1990), A Simple Matter of Justice (1993) and the award-winning film, No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon (2003), a story of two pioneers of the LGBTQIA+ movement. She is part of a lineage of queer feminist creatives who, despite never gaining the institutional support and the recognition they deserved, continue to advocate for a better world. “Something I learned from brilliant Black lesbians like Octavia Butler to Alexis Pauline Gumbs is that activism is like science fiction,” she says. “We are daring people to imagine another world into existence. Visual media can help make those possibilities real for those who haven’t experienced them. It can spark your desire so much; you are moved to action.”
Forty years after its original publication – it’s fascinating to reconsider Eye to Eye within the current context. What made the book so radical in the 70s was its pure and uncompromising agenda to create and share images made for the community by the community. Queer people, like many marginalised communities, continue to be objectified and commodified by outsiders in ways that perpetuate harm, stereotypes and misrepresentation, underscoring the political weight of visibility and representation. For me, the legacy JEB built is grounded in the inimitable way she photographed with love as a core value. In the opening essay of Eye to Eye, Joan Nestle of the Lesbian Herstory Archives writes, “JEB’s photographs are a mosaic of lesbian strength, of our striving to remake our outer and inner worlds. A refusal to be less than who we are.”
JEB: Pagan and Kady. Monticello, New York, 1978. From Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, published by Anthology Editions (Copyright © JEB (Joan. E. Biren))