Portraits Of ’70s Lesbians Offer A Moving Glimpse Of Hidden Lives

© JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions
Authentic representation of marginalised people on our screens, in our media and in the world around us is well established in modern times. It's so established that it can sometimes feel trite to talk about. After all, representation is only one piece of the puzzle to improve the lives of people who are disenfranchised. Focusing on representation alone makes it seem like it is the whole solution, not one piece of it.
But there is a fundamental truth to why representation matters. It is affirming and validating to see your desires, your frustrations and your physicality reflected in other people. It makes your 'difference' from what the world tells you not an anomaly but something real that other people can understand too. And that can have a huge impact on how you understand yourself.
When I was growing up, the word 'lesbian' meant three things: straight men's fetishistic view of lesbianism as something to titillate them; hate-fuelled stereotypes of man-hating, hairy butches; or Ellen. I couldn't see what I desired or what I looked like in the world around me and so I repressed it until it became unignorable. In the meantime, I assumed that lesbians and lesbian desire was rare and taboo – something for which you were either hated or fetishised (or, very occasionally, given a talk show). It was never something normal or varied or human.
The invisibility of lesbian lives to the public consciousness was even more true in the '70s, when the activist and photographer JEB began work on her personal project Eye To Eye. Before working on her own photographs, JEB told i-D that the spectrum of lesbian representation was either "women who were young, slim, blonde, romanticised and gauzy, or vampire, man-eating pornographic stereotypes."
JEB's portraits refuted that by giving explicit space to lesbians across America. The first project of its kind, she contacted lesbians of all kinds across the States through word of mouth and photographed them. They put their names and experiences to the faces which she would go on to publish in Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians.
This was a radical undertaking – not only because it was groundbreaking but because it was fraught with risk. In the '70s, being openly identified as LGBTQ in any form put you at risk of complete rejection from society. To put a name to a face and publicly own your lesbianism was an act of bravery and generosity. It was an act that said: "I am here. You're allowed to be here too."
The book is now being republished by Anthology Editions and the intimate portraits feel as radical now as they did then. While representation has hugely improved since I was growing up and has taken leaps and bounds since the '70s, it still feels revelatory to see these portraits. It not only confirms that women like me exist now but that we have always existed. And that our lives are varied, joyful, tangible and entirely our own.

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