“People without a history are rootless and easy to blow away,” explains Joan E. Biren, better known as JEB, the documentary photographer and filmmaker behind the groundbreaking photography collection Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians.
For the first time in 40 years, Eye to Eye, the first known photography book depicting only out lesbians photographed by a lesbian published in the U.S., is being reprinted and will be released on March 23 by Anthology Editions. Originally self-published by JEB in 1979, Eye to Eye offered queer women and lesbians never-before-seen images of what life could—and did—look like. Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For, once said the book felt “like a lost family album.”
Today, JEB insists Eye to Eye remains relevant as documentation of lesbian history. “It’s important to everyone to have a history and to know your history,” JEB says during our phone call. “We want ancestors, and we want a legacy that we can be proud of. Those are things I couldn’t find when I came out.”
When we spoke in February, JEB, a D.C. native who resides in Silver Spring, had just received her second COVID-19 vaccine. Today, the 76-year-old photographer doesn’t own an “actual camera.” Instead, JEB captures her multi-generational, chosen family via her iPhone. That is, when she sees them: “During pandemic days, I’m doing less photography of anything,” she quips. JEB’s time is currently spent promoting the book and preparing for a series of online conversations with Bechdel, writer and historian Sarah Schulman, and author and scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs.
JEB describes the reissue as a “very faithful reproduction.” The photos, collected over eight years from across the country, remain juxtaposed with writings from Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. Original text from JEB and Lesbian Herstory Archives cofounder Joan Nestle is featured alongside new essays from photographer Lola Flash, artist Tee Corinne, and former U.S. soccer player Lori Lindsey. JEB, who never wanted the book to go out of print (she believes it stopped being available after 1981 because she couldn’t afford to keep it in print), says, “I’m just as happy as I could possibly be with this reissue.”
In 1979, images of queer women were scarce and discrimination was common. “I knew that I was making a book that had never existed before,” explains JEB. “I was determined to put as much as possible into [it] as I could, to show as many different kinds of lesbians as I could.” Eye to Eye suggests the vastness of lesbian identity—documenting Black and Brown lesbians, old, young, butch, femme, disabled, in recovery, and more. (Still, JEB ponders in the book, if she should’ve included a subtitle: Only Portraits and of Just a Very Few Lesbians.) JEB wanted lesbians to see “affirming and validating reflection of who they and their friends and their lovers are.” What she made was a piece of LGBTQ history.
But times have changed since Eye to Eye‘s images made those “very few lesbians” visible. In the last decade, major advances in LGBTQ rights have been won; queer women and the greater LGBTQ community have become increasingly more common in pop culture and beyond. And the internet has made it easier for LGBTQ folks to find and connect with one another.
“We’re more visible now, but it’s also true that the images are still very limited,” says JEB. “That’s another reason it’s important to have these images out there, because they’re not the kind of images that you tend to see, even today, in mainstream media.”
As queer and trans people become more visible, discussions around the dangers of hypervisibility have circulated. Regarding the connection between visibility and violence, JEB responds,“Visibility, as part of a marginalized group, has always meant that you could be harmed, if not by physical violence, then by discriminations from society and the state.” And progress, she adds, often sparks backlash.
A 2019 Atlantic article on JEB’s work argues, “visibility, in art and beyond, has never guaranteed queer people their safety; often, particularly for transgender women of color, increased representation has portended high rates of violence.” (To JEB’s knowledge, none of Eye to Eye’s subjects were trans women.) We know violence against trans people is becoming more visible, she says. Last year alone, at least 44 transgender people—mostly Black and Latinx trans women—were murdered; at least another seven have been killed since January. “It’s too many,” says JEB. “Even one murder of a trans person is too many.”
“Whether it’s because the visibility is causing the violence or the violence is just becoming more visible—it doesn’t really matter. What matters is ending it,” she says.
Art cannot end violence. But JEB argues representation in art “help[s] construct the world,” she says. After she spent six years closeted, JEB says, living openly “lifts the burden that comes from hiding and lying and self denial.” Collectively, she argues, “you can’t build a movement from inside the closet.”
Eye to Eye gave lesbians a way to imagine a better life. “You have to be able to imagine it, and desire it, to work for the change.” Then representation must spark action. JEB explains, “You have to have action to fight for the change that you imagine should come.”
JEB is confident in the next generation of LGBTQ folks. “We are in every movement,” she says, which she believes are progressively becoming one to demand racial, social, economic, and climate justice. “We have to all work together so that everyone can live in healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities. That’s the change we need and everybody deserves. We’re not close to it yet. But, to end on a positive note, we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”