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Through the eyes of Joan Biren: Documenting lesbian lives

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Joan Biren

Through the eyes of Joan Biren: Documenting lesbian lives

As a self-taught photographer, Joan Biren helped to document the lives of LGBT individuals for more than thirty years, gathering awards and accolades along the way.

Her work is important to ensure that the history of the LGBT people– especially lesbians– will never be forgotten.

Speaking to the New York Times, she said: “To this day I have women, even young women, tell me that my photographs make a difference, help them to see themselves, to dare to come out.”

“If silence equals death, invisibility also equals death,” she said.

Joan Biren: From military to politics

Born in 1944 in Washington, DC and raised there, Joan E. Biren (or JEB) came from a middle-class family with her father working in the Navy and then the Pentagon.

Joan was an active student leader. She went to Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Massachusetts because she wanted to go to an all-women’s college and she graduated from the school in 1966.

In an interview for the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project of the Sophia Smith Collection, she said that back then, she knew she was a lesbian “because I had no desire or attraction to men whatsoever.”

“I mean, I felt it. It was totally visceral and impossible to ignore,” she added.

She took up communications at American University in Washington, DC and then three years of doctoral studies at Oxford University.

She then returned to the US where she worked at a camera store and a small town newspaper.

Joan Biren: From the Furies to photography

She joined the women’s liberation movement in Washington, DC in 1969 and became part of the Furies, a group of 12 women who were a lesbian-feminist collective in 1971.

Among the collective’s other members were Rita Mae Brown and Charlotte Bunch. The group only lasted 18 months but they had a significant impact on the women’s movement.

While a part of the collective, she started documenting things through her photography because: “I couldn’t picture a life as a lesbian because there were no lesbians living out lives for me to see.”

She declared: “I needed to see images of lesbians.”

Her works– which recorded late 20th-century lesbian life– began to appear in LGBT publications like the periodical off our backs, the Washington Blade, Gay Community News, and LP albums and book covers.

Later on, she published two collections of her photography: Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians in 1979 and Making A Way: Lesbians Out Front in 1987.

In 1997, a retrospective exhibition of Joan’s photographs, “Queerly Visible,” was organized by the George Washington University and this traveled the country.

Joan Biren: From film to video

Joan translated her skill with the camera to videos, and from slide shows (called “Lesbian Images in Photography, 1850 to the present to women’s groups”) to film making.

She set up Moonforce Media, a non-profit video production company that produced and distributed films and videos that promote social justice and help progressive communities.

Among her films are A Simple Matter of Justice, about the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.

Another is Removing the Barriers, on training healthcare providers to improve service to lesbian clients.

Her recent work was No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, about Del and Phyllis who founded in 1955 the Daughters of Bilitis, the first public organization for lesbians in the US.

For her work in making “invisible visible,” Mount Holyoke College bestowed upon Joan the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts.

Her papers and visual material has been permanently archived at The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. Her work can also be found at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

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