Joan E. Biren

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Joan E. Biren or JEB (born 1944 in Washington, DC), is an internationally recognized documentary artist. Her photographic and film work has chronicled the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people for more than 30 years, bringing them a new visibility.[1]


JEB's films include No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon; Removing the Barriers, used to train healthcare providers to improve service to lesbian clients; Women Organize!; and Solidarity, Not Charity on relief efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.[2] Additional notable films have included Lesbian Physicians on Practice, Patients and Power and For Love and For Life: The 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.[3] The first film is still commonly screened in medical schools around the country and the latter has been broadcast on public television.

Biren produced and wrote A Simple Matter of Justice, which documented the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. The one-hour film received wide acclaim and was voted "Best Video" at the Washington, DC Reel Affirmations Film Festival. In order to produce this piece, Joan set up a live six-camera switch feed that simultaneously broadcast footage on jumbo screens located on the National Mall and around the world.[4]

Early career: The Furies and photography[edit]

Joan attended Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she received her B.A. in political science. She later received a M.A. in Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. After three years of pursuing doctoral studies at Oxford University, Biren returned home to America. While working at a camera store and small town newspaper, Biren began to teach herself photography skills that laid the foundation for her future career.

In her early 20s, Biren and others, including Rita Mae Brown and Charlotte Bunch, formed the Furies Collective, a radical experiment in lesbian feminist separatist organizing. Though the collective lasted only about 18 months, it had a profound influence on lesbian thought through its newspaper, The Furies, and other publications.[3][5]

It was in the collective that JEB began developing her skills in photography. As she has stated, "I needed to see images of lesbians."[5] Her books Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (1979) and Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front (1987) brought groundbreaking visibility to lesbian lives.[6] In 1997, George Washington University mounted a retrospective exhibit of JEB's work, Queerly Visible: 1971–1991, which later toured the nation. In 2011, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art held a retrospective show, "Lesbians Seeing Lesbians: Building Community in Early Feminist Photography".[7]

Her mentors included Audre Lorde and Barbara Deming. She said, “I watched them, and I read what they wrote, and I translated it into visuals that I needed to share as widely as possible." In her photography, Joan tried to break away from the traditional power structures associated with photography. She preferred to use the term "muse" rather than "subject." She would also try to interact with her "muses" on equal terns. If she was photographing a nude woman, she would ask if the women wanted her to be nude as well.[8]

In an effort to ensure that affirming images and positive self-expression occurred outside of what she considered traditional patriarchal venues, Biren included her work in off our backs, The Washington Blade, Gay Community News, and on countless LP album and book covers.[5]


For many years, JEB traveled the country presenting her multi-projector slideshows and running photography workshops. In the early 1990s, she moved from slideshows to film making. JEB's award-winning films have been seen on the Sundance Channel and public broadcasting stations. She is the president of Moonforce Media, a non-profit company, which produces and distributes films and videos that challenge people to work for social justice and awards The Tee A. Corinne Prize, an annual grant to lesbian media makers.

JEB's papers and visual materials will be permanently archived at The Sophia Smith Collection, the premiere women's history collection, at Smith College.[9] Many of her photographs are located at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In addition, The George Washington University houses a collection of photographs used in Queerly Visible: 1971–1991.

From Joan Biren's oral history in the Rainbow History Project collection:

{{quote|... My thing was to take pictures of the people that other people weren't taking pictures of, to make visible what was invisible ... I always try to present the entire diversity of our community. That's always very much in my mind in all of my work.

The thing about the Furies is that, for as short a time as we existed, we had a big impact. The ideology was very influential....

In 1995, Biren became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP).[10] WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organization. The organization works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media.

Bibliography of works by Joan E. Biren[edit]

  • Biren, Joan E. (1979). Eye to eye : portraits of lesbians : photographs / by JEB ; with a foreword by Joan Nestle, and an introd. by Judith Schwarz. Washington, D.C.: Glad Hag Books ; [Weatherby Lake, MO : distributed by Naiad Press]. pp. 72. ISBN 0960317600.
  • Biren, Joan E.; Minnie Bruce Pratt (1987). Making a way : lesbians out front / photographs by JEB (Joan E. Biren) ; foreword by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Washington, D.C.: Glad Hag Books ; San Francisco, CA : Distributed by Spinsters/Aunt Lute. p. 112. ISBN 0960317619.
  • Deming, Barbra; Joan E. Biren (c. 1985). Prisons that could not hold / Barbara Deming ; introduction by Grace Paley ; photo essay edited by Joan E. Biren (paperback). San Francisco: Spinsters Ink. pp. 230. ISBN 0933216157.
  • Queerly visible, 1971-1991 : the work of JEB (Joan E. Biren) : an exhibition in the GW Gelman Library, September 4 through November 21, 1997. [Washington]: Special Collections Department, the Gelman Library, the George Washington University. c. 1997.


  1. ^ Summers, Claude (2004). The queer encyclopedia of the visual arts. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
  2. ^ "Women Organize!". Women Make Movies. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  3. ^ a b "Community Pioneers: Joan E. Biren". Rainbow History Project. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  4. ^ Guide to the Joan E. Biren Photograph Collection, 1971-1991 Special Collections Research Center, Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, The George Washington University
  5. ^ a b c "Finding Aid to the Joan E. Biren Papers, 1944-2011". Five College Archive and Manuscripts Collections. Retrieved 24 November 2012.
  6. ^ Pitman, Gayle (2001), "JEB (Joan E. Biren): Lesbian Photographer, Video Producer, Activist", in Gartrell, Nanette; Rothblum, Esther D (eds.), Everyday Mutinies: Funding Lesbian Activism, Haworth Press, pp. 23–32, ISBN 1-56023-259-5
  7. ^ "LESBIANS SEEING LESBIANS: Building Community in Early Feminist Photography". Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  8. ^ Manders, Kerry (2019-04-08). "Photos of Lesbian Lives Meant to Inspire a Movement". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-04-09.
  9. ^ "The Power of Women Voices. Joan Biren (JEB)". Smith College Libraries. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College. Retrieved June 6, 2015.
  10. ^ "Associates | The Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press". Retrieved 2017-06-21.

Further reading[edit]

Archival resources[edit]

External links[edit]

External video
"No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon", trailer
"A Simple Matter of Justice: The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation", trailer
"Lesbians Seeing Lesbians." Artist & Curator panel. The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art.