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Episode 66: Eye to Eye with Joan Biren (Transcript)

Episode 66: Eye to Eye with Joan Biren

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.  

Joan: I couldn't find any images of lesbians that looked like me or my friends or my lovers. I could not find them. Literally. It was a complete image desert. So I thought, if I want to see these images, I am going to have to make them myself.

Nahanni: Photographer Joan Biren, also known as JEB, was born during the Second World War and grew up in a Jewish family in Washington DC.  Joan started photographing lesbians in 1971… at a time when you could lose a job, an apartment, or even your kids, if people suspected you were gay.

Joan published her first book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, in 1979.  The black-and-white photographs showed lesbians in their everyday lives—at work, at play, with their children, kissing their partners.  The images—common enough today—were shocking at the time.

Eye to Eye was re-released this year, and Judith Rosenbaum recently talked with Joan about her photography, and the way her Jewish, feminist, and lesbian identities have intersected throughout her life.

[Theme music fades]

Joan: I think I was always a feminist. I think I was always a lesbian. When I was really young, I just felt the injustice of women not having equality. I wanted to do all the things the boys did. I was a tomboy. I was the only girl on a boys' little league team when I was young because they didn’t have enough boys. And then later, when I worked in a mom-and-pop camera store, and of course they put me on the mom's side, where you did the photo retailing, getting people's pictures printed. And I fought very hard to be moved to the pop side, where they sold the cameras. And that's where I learned a lot, you know, by working in the camera store.

Judith: That was your grounding in photography? 

Joan: Well, I taught myself photography by a correspondence course, which is sort of like the retro version of an online course, where your lessons came to you in the mail—you know, snail mail.  So, uh, I was self-taught, both through the correspondence course and through work in the camera  store.  So when I came back from graduate school at Oxford university in England, where I was the only woman in my graduate college, I joined the women's liberation movement in 1970, which was pretty early. And I joined a women's liberation consciousness-raising group. And when I came out as a lesbian with my lover in this group, we got expelled from the group.  So my early feminist experience was, um...not so good. 

Judith Rosenbaum: Was that because, um, because you were a couple, like, because you were exclusive? Or because of other political differences, or... can you say a little bit more about that?

Joan: I was thrown out of a women's liberation consciousness raising group that included only straight women who thought my lover and I were straight. And when we disclosed our lesbianism to them, they threw us out of the consciousness-raising group. I was not thrown out by lesbians at that point. 

Judith Rosenbaum: I see.

Joan: Later, the same lover and I were expelled from a lesbian collective, but that's a whole different story. That wasn't because we were lesbians—that was because our politics were different than the other people in the lesbian collective. I think part of the problem was there was antisemitism in the collective, and the fact that I was a loud, pushy Jew was part of what they were pushing back against . 

Judith: What was your Jewish background? 

Joan: I was raised without much Jewish education. I believe my parents had a lot of internalized antisemitism because they had suffered discrimination as Jews in their own youth. My father had wanted to go to medical school, but couldn't because of the quotas, and my mother, uh, had to pass as Christian to get a job during the depression. At least those are the stories I grew up with.

Judith Rosenbaum: So as you were growing up and sort of having these incipient feminist awareness and standing up for yourself as a woman and as a lesbian, what was your family's response?  

Joan: I think my mother was sort of a proto-feminist. You know, my father ironed all his own clothes because she just said, I'm not doing that. When my sister came out to them for me, uh, because my mother said to my sister, “Gee, Joan has dykey friends.” And my sisters said the equivalent of “duh,” you know, um, we went through a period of, they wouldn't talk to me. I mean, she always knew I was a lesbian, I think— you know, it was not hard to know that—but she didn't want her daughter to be a lesbian, like many parents, partly because she didn't want all the hardships that might come with that for me, and partly because she didn't want to feel like she had done something wrong.  

You know, my father was always sort of neutral about it.  We just didn't talk about it — you know, “don't ask, don't tell” went on for a while. And then I got kind of sick of that and I started inviting them to my book  launch parties and my slideshows. And they started coming and my mother loved it, because at the time, queer people, anytime a parent was present and seemingly supportive, they went wild. So she would stand up and wave like the queen, you know, and everybody would applaud for her. 

Judith Rosenbaum: She got to be the good guy.

Joan: Yeah.  So they, you know, they came around.

Judith: So tell me a little bit about how you became a photographer and why photography. 

Joan: I became a photographer because I wanted to do something I had not been taught how to do in patriarchal institutions. I had a very privileged, very patriarchal education. I went to Mount Holyoke College and then I went to Oxford University and when I got into this radical lesbian feminist collective, it became clear to me—because of things my collective members said—that my mind had been colonized, in a certain sense. I was using these Oxford ways of arguing, right, that were hard for them to deal with. So I wanted another way of communicating. I wanted a way that was not taught to me by the patriarchy. 

Judith: And also it's a silent medium. I mean, it's visual, it's visually powerful, but it's not talking. It's not loud in the same way.

Joan: It’s not arguing. 

Judith: Yeah. 

Joan: So what happened was, I couldn't find any images of lesbians that looked like me or my friends or my lovers. I could not find them. Literally. It was a complete image desert. So I thought, if I want to see these images, I am going to have to make them myself.  And my first image, I didn't even have a camera. I borrowed a camera. And I held it out at arm’s length and kissed my lover, Sharon, and made my first lesbian photograph and early selfie. 

Judith: Nice. So you decide to do this project, but you're doing this at a time when it was potentially dangerous for people to even be identified as queer. So how did you go about this project and how were you able to actually bring it to fruition?

Joan: It was dangerous for people to be out. There were a lot of possible horrible consequences that were legal. Everything from having custody of your children taken away from you, losing your job, being expelled and shunned by your family, not being able to rent homes. I mean, there were so many types of discrimination that were legal against people who were known homosexuals, which we were called at the time.

So the main challenge in doing this project was to find lesbians who were willing to be photographed, to be seen with their names and where they were photographed—uh, only first names in the first book that I did. But it was still very courageous. And I give all the credit to the women who are in my first book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, because without their bravery, there would have been no book.  But I had to do a lot of work to find them. And I had determined that if I was going to make a book, it should show as broad a spectrum of lesbians as possible in terms of age and race and urban, rural... all the possible parameters. I wanted to have any lesbian who picked up the book feel like she could see some part of herself in it.

Judith: How did you actually get it published?

Joan: That was really difficult. None of the existing LGBTQ+ presses would publish it, because up until that point, all my photographs had been published on newsprint, which, you know, bleeds the ink and makes them look very blurry. And I was determined that there should be a book that looked good. And that costs money. So I had to raise the money myself. And then I had to find a printer, which was also difficult because no press wanted to print a book that had the word lesbian on the cover and real people on the inside because they thought they would be sued for libel. And in Maryland, a press could be sued for libel. So I had to get a lawyer to write some sort of, you know, document that convinced the press they were released from liability. 

So then we had the legal document. We had the releases. We had the press agree to do the printing. And then one of the press men refused to work on the project because of his religious objection. 

Judith: Hmm. Wow. 

Joan: But we got it printed, and it immediately sold out, which is astounding for a photography book.  It was a 5,000 press run. And the hunger for those kind of images was so great that we went back to press. And the second printing also sold out. 

Judith: So tell me a little bit about the reception of the book and what it meant to people.

Joan: Well, it was really amazing. The kind of letters that I got from women, thanking me, you know, telling me how transformative the images were for them. And the reviews, I'll read you a couple of things from the reviews at the time, because it gives you an idea.  One reviewer wrote, “These women are not surprised by what they are doing, nor is their photographer. Yet the effect of the book is shocking.” And people wrote to me, and one lesbian said, “Your photographs both comfort and frighten me with how much they dare.” And I'm giving you these quotes because it gives you an idea of how revolutionary what I did was.

Judith: And I love that you then followed up the book with the Dyke Show, right, a slide show of lesbian images in history. So tell me a little bit about that, and how you created this new visual history that put lesbians at the center. 

Joan: Well, after I published the book, I wanted to promote it and I wanted to keep making new images. So I needed a way to finance traveling around the country. And because I believe, as JWA does, that history is so important, that everybody needs to feel rooted in some history. Um, and we had no lesbian history at the time. So I thought I would do a slide show about the history of lesbian photography. I love doing research, so I had to find lesbian images. I had to find lesbian photographers, and this was not easy. It was sort of like reading between the lines. And what I did, I put together this show, and I would put up pictures of a particular woman photographer. And at the end of the segment, I would either put an exclamation point or a question mark, depending on how confident I was that I had actually found a lesbian photographer. And I'm very proud to say that in the 40 years since then, there's been a lot more research and a lot more documentation has come to light, and I was right on!

Judith: What were some of the clues that you looked for, if you were able to identify these images and photographers without the biographical information, what were the tip offs that you found? 

Joan: Well, I had a section called “The Look, the Clothes, the Stance,” and “the look” had a lot to do with how directly the photographer and what I like to call the muse, because I think the word “subject” is, uh, indicates a power relationship between the photographer and the person who's being photographed that I personally don't believe in and that I think a lot of lesbians work against. Um, so there's this eye-to-eye connection, right? Plus there's a way of standing and presenting yourself that shows a certain amount of power and comfort. The “stance” is sort of a slouchy hands-in-the-pocket kind of a thing.  And then the clothes, you know, it's kind of obvious, you know, hats, ties, shirts, whatever. Um, so I would look for those things. 

I would look for biographical information that said, “so-and-so led a Bohemian lifestyle” or “so-and-so was not married” or “so-and-so lived across the hall from the person who wrote the introduction to her photograph book,” you know, I mean all this coded, but pretty obvious, if you think about it, wording of things that now has been made much more explicit.

Judith: Right. So you mentioned when you were collecting the photographs for the book that you were thinking a lot about diversity of representation. And the book is quite diverse, as you say—you know, people of all different backgrounds and from all different kinds of places and also engaged in all different kinds of things, right? Like with lovers, fixing trucks, you know, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, just sort of in all these different scenarios. You know, the book has just been reissued. So what holds up and what, perhaps, doesn't in 2021?

Joan: I think it really holds up extraordinarily well. If I would pick one area that I wish I had given more representation to, it would be fat women. 

Judith: Hmm.

Joan:  I think I feel pretty good about the rest of it.

Judith: And so did you think about Jewishness at all when you were thinking about representation and diversity in the book? 

Joan: I did not. This is a book that is very much influenced by the fact that at the time I was part of a, um, Dianic, Wiccan coven. Uh, I was not in any way connected to my Jewishness at this point, because part of us reinventing everything at this time in our lives… I was reinventing my spiritual life. 

Judith Rosenbaum: How has your understanding of spirituality and your Jewishness changed over time, if it has? 

Joan: Oh, it has changed a lot. Somewhere in the ‘80s, I was feeling, as the whole feminist movement was at the time, with antisemitism within the movement and within my coven and within some of the Dianic tradition. So I left, I re-embraced my Jewishness, which meant for me, I had to learn it because I really didn't know it. Evie Beck, Evelyn Torton Beck...

Judith: The lesbian activist and scholar

Joan: ...was very important in this particular time in my life because she encouraged me strongly to be out as a Jew because I, you know, I had a certain public, uh, persona and she felt that that wasn't part of it and it should be part of it. So Evie invited me to be in her wonderful anthology, Nice Jewish Girls. So I wrote an essay explaining my assimilationist beginning and how I was struggling to be more Jewish. And I also had a photo essay in Nice Jewish Girls, and that was sort of my coming out as a Jew. And I have made a point to identify as Jewish as much as I could since then.

Judith:  So I wanted to ask you, I was thinking about how there are sort of two potential tensions that I can see in your work. One between, kind of, photography and activism and one between documentary and art, or maybe those are the same tensions. So I'm curious if you think about either of those as a tension or whether they don't feel like they’re in tension for you or how you think about your work on those axes. 

Joan: I believe that photography and art in general can be activism because it can transform people. And I know that it can transform people because people write to me and say, until I saw your picture, I didn’t know that as a lesbian, I could be a mother. And now I'm a mother. I didn't know there were Black lesbians. Basic things like that.  

But I believe that when you put out work like I did, it helps people construct other worlds because it shows other possibilities. And then it becomes not just representational, but aspirational, for some people. And so to me, that is the beginning of activism, because activism is about change. And if you give somebody an action of change, that's the beginning.

[Theme music]

Joan Biren’s 1979 book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, was re-published earlier this year by Anthology Editions.  

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Thanks to Judith Rosenbaum for this interview with Joan Biren, and to Jen Richler, who produced this episode. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. 

The Jewish Women’s Archive is celebrating its 25th anniversary! We hope you’ll join us— along with Gloria Steinem, Beanie Feldstein and Tovah Feldshuh— for our virtual celebration on Thursday, November 4th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific. For more information and to sign up, go to jwa.org/celebrate25!  We’d love to see you there.

Visit Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk. That’s where you’ll find all of our previous shows, as well as links to subscribe, so that you’ll never miss an episode.  To help others find the podcast, please consider reviewing Can We Talk? on iTune  and sharing your favorite episodes with your friends.  

I’m your host, Nahanni Rous.  Until next time!

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 66: Eye to Eye with Joan Biren (Transcript)." (Viewed on March 22, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-66-eye-eye-joan-biren>.


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