The first photo book of lesbians by a lesbian

Joan E. Biren, an American lesbian photographer, released “Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians” in 1979 which not just portrays the regular life of women doing regular things but also lets people see more of gay women open and proud

Chinmai Sinha | Patna

Released in 1979, Joan E. Biren’s photo book “Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbian” is credited as the first ever photo book of lesbians by a lesbian. To create something like a photo book of lesbians was decided by the photographer even before owning a camera of any kind. The only picture of a lesbian couple kissing that Biren had ever seen was a passport photo sized selfie that she had taken with her lover. The very idea of a picture of two women kissing in love thrilled her to an extent that she desired to see more pictures of women bold enough to be open to the world.

This extraordinary photo book shows powerful women who are icons of L.G.B.T.Q. activism, disability rights, and Black feminism. Biren’s photo book amazingly makes it possible for people to see the gay women living their ordinary and “normal” lives.

For gay people to be accepted by their families let alone the Government has been and till now is a tough nut to crack. To have a book published on lesbians by a lesbian photographer was not a smooth process. The feminist movement during twentieth century treated lesbians as a loathsome faction who would weaken the movement’s credibility. This idea however helped grow a radical lesbian group founded by twelve women in 1971 Washington, D.C. This group came to be called as the Furies Collective and challenged the feminist movement not ready to accept lesbians as their own. Being one of the active members of the Collective’s, Biren helped form its theories. This radical lesbian group encouraged women to open up. The New Yorker wrote in an article that having studied politics at Mount Holyoke College and at Oxford, Biren’s elite education background became a problem for her as some of her team members accused her of having “a Prick in the head.” However, Biren got a Nikkormat which a Collective member bought her at an airport duty-free store during a Trip for an activist meeting in Tokyo.

Later, Biren entered a correspondence course and started working at a mom-and-pop camera store to learn the basics of camera and photography. She started identifying herself as JEB and stared working on portraits. The pursuit of creating a photo book in the seventies was not easy as lesbians were not comfortable enough. The process of gaining trust of women, hiring a lawyer to secure insurance for her printer, self-developing the images, collecting loans, and self-publishing the book, took close to eight years. JEB, who is now seventy-six years old, brought a revolution that changed the way lesbians were portrayed. Before JEB’s photographs, gay women were drawn as a pornographic fantasy for straight men. From Hollywood movies to novels, lesbians during sixties were depicted as evil monsters.

LGBTQ rights and homophobia-

In India, the Supreme Court passed a historic judgement by decriminalising sexual relations between homosexual adults and legitimizing same-sex relationships. This helped gain social legitimacy for LGBTQ—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer—community. Section 377, a law passed by the British during their rule in India criminalised any type of consummation that was non-penile vaginal saying that it was not natural. However, scrapping of Section 377 does not delete the stigma imposed on them as it is yet difficult for them to come out in open and accept their sexuality.

Although several countries like the US support gay relationships, it would to be simply ignorant on our part to think that things have changed and that JEB’s attempt to portray gay people as normal people has been successful. There are way too many anti-homosexuality legislations across the world. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has passed several anti-gay laws which also include punishing people who inspire people to accept their sexuality as they are accused of spreading propaganda of anti-natural sexual relations. The anti-gay legislations in Russia are not just limited to Russians. Foreigners who visit Russia who are believed to be gay or support LGBTQ community are either arrested or detained. There are more than 75 countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence, and “forty-two of them are former British colonies so we can see where the legacy comes from,” said chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust to The Guardian.

It is very important for people to come out of the closet and accept their sexuality. A Psychology student, Vasundhra, on being asked about the difficult part of accepting her sexuality said, “I feel like sexuality has been a portal of sorts. A long-drawn portal which kind of plucked me out my ignorance towards myself. So, I feel like the identity crisis was the biggest hurdle. I knew I liked everyone, gender no bar and that didn’t seem strange to me, but it did to other people. The challenging part was this: how do I know that this is me? Do i believe just my intrinsic desires or should I understand the more romantic and long-term implications of it with regard to a heteronormative structure of a person’s future? How do I take a leap of faith into this identity that I was creating? Well, too bad nobody told me that it’s fluid. I realised over time that it wasn’t about committing to one particular, projected identity but rather an evolving one.”

A book that JEB published almost 50 years ago is helping people discover themselves as normal beings even now. “From a place of identity confusion to a comfortable mental space where one can imagine oneself in a society without feeling embarrassed or pretentious” is as important as understanding that “being queer is not outlandish but normal,” said Vasundhra.