In the 1970s, photographer and activist Joan E. Biren, who goes by JEB, set out to publish a book about lesbians. It is easy to take the idea of representation for granted, but not that long ago, finding your people took a lot more work. The book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, was the first of its kind, and it was bold, as being gay was still stigmatized — if not outright criminalized — in most of the country. Biren’s book is also remarkably inclusive, even by today’s standards, highlighting women from all different races and backgrounds in an international effort to broaden the popular view of what a lesbian looks like.
The book is being rereleased this month by Anthology, and offers up a rare historical testament to the beauty and diversity of gay women. BuzzFeed News spoke with JEB about the legacy of her work and the hunger to see yourself in art.
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How did this book get started?
I knew I was making a book that had never existed before, and I didn’t know if I’d have a chance to make another, so I was determined to do as much as possible in this one book. What I wanted was a book where as many lesbians as possible would find a reflection of themselves and their friends and their lovers, because we just didn’t have that. As it was pre-internet, I found most of the people I wanted to photograph by word of mouth. I did a lot of traveling, and I would ask friends and friends of friends to help me locate the kinds of people I was looking for. For example, working-class lesbians, or rural lesbians, or lesbians with children. When I first spoke to them, I wouldn’t bring my camera. I was very careful to explain exactly what I was doing, because I needed people to trust me — there was so much fear around having your image seen and used around being a lesbian. We were still classified as sick by medical professionals, sinful by most religions, and criminal under the law because of our sexuality. The consequences ranged from being banished by your own family to possibly having your job or your housing or your children taken from you. So I explained to these lesbians what I was doing and why I wanted to do it, and why they in particular would be such a valuable addition to the project.
In spite of all the possible harmful consequences, [there were] people who were willing to come out, because they understood that when you can live an open life it just lifts this weight of hiding and lying and self-denial, and they made themselves an example. They had to be very brave to do that. Without their courage, there would be no book, and I’m so grateful that they trusted me and agreed to be photographed. I get emotional about it, even now. Every image is precious to me.
Did you know at the beginning how you wanted it to look at the end?
Very much so. We didn’t have the word “intersectional” at the time, but I was part of a liberation movement that had intersectional politics, and we were very aware of class and race. I knew that I was not going to publicly make a book that was just my own close inner circle, because we were all too much alike. I had to go out and find people that I didn’t know, and I was not going to publish a book unless I found those people.
This book was the first of its kind. Has your view on the significance of the book changed as representations of gay people have become more mainstream?
These images are historic, so that remains. For lesbians, our history was intentionally hidden and destroyed for forever, we were made invisible on purpose. I feel that it is so important to have that history, to know your history, and I think everyone wants to know who their ancestors are, and to have a history to be proud of. I think that it remains important in that way as a historic touchstone.
Even as lesbians have gained more visibility, that visibility still represents only a very small slice of who we are. There are far too few BIPOC, poor, immigrant, trans, and nonbinary and disabled queer people in the mass media. Not every lesbian is going to see herself reflected in Ellen and The L Word. Because I made sure to include this wide variety of people, I hope that this example being visible again might challenge others making media today to be more inclusive.
I love looking at the work that younger lesbian photographers are making, and I have no interest in jumping back in there with my old eyes and my old shoulders.
Did you expand the book or reconnect with anyone when you were putting together the new edition?
The publisher always wanted to make the reissue as faithful to the original as possible, so we only used the original images, the same layout and design. We did add some essays, and I took a lot of time to organize all the resources and notes that are at the end of the book, but most importantly, we went back to the original negatives, and because of all the new technology we were able to make these beautiful scans that were printed in these gorgeous duotones. And because of all this, the new hardback edition of the book, to me, feels like a new book. The whole quality is so elevated.
In terms of the people, I never lost touch with some of the people in the book, and the reissue put me in closer touch with others, but I didn’t try to reconnect with everyone. First of all, I was way too busy making the new edition of the book, and it wasn’t integral to having that happen, and as you can imagine in forty-something years, not everyone is where they used to be, so the project of finding someone would have been a huge undertaking.
You were told that you were too well educated to be radical — can you talk about what it means to you to be radical?
First, I want to clear something up. I was told that I was too well educated to use my verbal skills in revolutionary efforts because I had learned those verbal skills in patriarchal institutions, so in a way, my mind has been colonized and polluted. So that’s when I decided to teach myself photography and use that as my tool, because I would be self-taught and avoid all the problems that went with the other skills.
I would say that what it takes to be a radical, you have to have a vision of the world where there is equity and justice for all people. You have to be able to imagine that, that’s one. Two, a radical has to have the ability to feel joy and live joyously in the face of oppression. You have to be optimistic, and you have to believe that people and the world can and do change. These are the things that keep us going and give us the drive to work for the fundamental change that is needed in socioeconomic and political structures.
The imagining of a better world is already joyous, and you have to live that as much as possible, and if you can’t, it’s really hard to get the work done.
Do you have any advice on how to live joyously as a radical?
I don’t like to give advice, actually. I like to live my life the best way I can, and let that be the advice.
Let me tell you, though, about art and activism. A lot of people think those are two separate things, but to me, art and activism are united in being transformative. If you can’t visualize a different life, if you can’t visualize something better, how are you going to fight for that change to happen?
These photographs allow for people to see something they had never imagined. I’ve had people tell me, “I didn’t think I could be a lesbian and a mother,” and “I didn’t think I could be a lesbian because I’m Black, and then I saw that in your book.” The hunger is very, very hard to convey, it was visceral. I felt it that way myself, and I know that other people did, because of the kind of reception that my book got.
Now that lesbians are widely seen in popular culture, what audience are you trying to reach with this book?
When the book was first released, because of homophobia and the limits on my own resources, the book did not reach a wide audience, so I am thrilled that now it’s going to be accessible to people all over the world. It’s really exciting. We talked about how important representation is to people who’ve been erased and ignored, and I think that it’s also important for other people to see and understand people who’ve been marginalized. I am hoping that all kinds of people will find the photographs and will feel that they are illuminating and energizing and be amazed by all these beautiful lesbians from the 1970s. We just had an administration that did a lot of things to try to push people back in the closet — it’s not a hypothetical, it’s a real danger.