Joan E. Biren ’66, Doctor of Fine Arts
Joan E. Biren — photographer, filmmaker, documentary artist — you have devoted your life to making the invisible visible. Your work has brought groundbreaking visibility to lesbian lives.
After your graduation from Mount Holyoke and your studies at American University and at Oxford, you came to photography in large part because, as you said, “I wanted a reflection of my reality.” In your early twenties, with other artists, poets and thinkers, you formed the Furies Collective, a radical experiment in lesbian feminist organizing. By documenting the activity of the Collective and contributing to its publications, you helped create a body of work that has had a profound and lasting influence on lesbian thought.
You said, “I couldn’t picture a life as a lesbian because there were no lesbians living out lives for me to see.” And so you created portraits and filled that need, dispelling myths and addressing major questions about women’s identities. In your books “Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians” and “Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front,” you gave to us the reflection you had been looking for. As you said, “If somebody else had the picture, I didn’t have to take it.” You always aspired to represent the lives in danger of not being seen, the stories in danger of not being told. Your work moved those stories from the margins to the center, affirming their existence and value.
Moving into filmmaking in the early 1990s, you wrote and produced “A Simple Matter of Justice,” which documented the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Creating this film involved simultaneously broadcasting footage on jumbo screens located on the National Mall and around the world. You relished this sprawling task, saying it made you “the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.” You insisted that some of the cameras point at the crowd, not just the speakers on the stage. “That’s the story,” you said. “The story isn’t just this talking on the stage. It’s everybody who came.” And by making your film your way, you imbued the story with greater meaning.
Your work has been shown at George Washington University and at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and has toured nationally, bringing visibility and possibility to those who need to see them. Your films have been seen on the Sundance channel and on numerous public broadcasting stations and you are again bringing marginalized voices to the forefront.
The struggle for equality is indeed political, but you have also said that on another level, “it’s about loving in every way that you could.” For your love of women and your expression of that love in your trailblazing documentary artwork, for indeed making the invisible visible, Mount Holyoke College is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa.