My Hijab Has a Voice

Jodie Bateman’s empowering series raises awareness of the difficulties Muslims face in the West

Jodie Bateman, a photographer who grew up in Earlsfield, London, converted to Islam in December 2017. During this period of her life, Jodie began questioning the stereotypes often pinned with being Muslim and living in Western society. Deciding to record these experiences with her lens, Jodie commenced work on My Hijab Has a Voice: Revisited – an authentic and autobiographical series that both challenges and empowers her subjects. Within the project, she takes predominantly self-portraiture with the odd portrait tossed in for good measure, placing herself and younger sister in the frame as they replicate historical paintings, those that often objectify women. The work is captivating, poised and provoking for the ways in which it demands attention from the viewer; she hopes to share a new perspective, to realign the stigma and to raise awareness of the difficulties Muslims face in the West. Below, I chat to Jodie about her journey into photography, her experiences with converting to Islam and what she strives to achieve through her imagery.

First, it would be great to hear about your journey into photography, what inspired you to pick up a camera?

I first fell in love with photography when I discovered my mum’s boxes of photographs as a little girl. She used to have loads of photographs printed from the little disposal cameras; she always had so many of them and I was always mesmerised by the photograph as a document or object. I remember holding it, looking into its information and then, when I got my first camera phone as a young girl – I think I was around 13 – I started shooting made up shoots with my sisters. That’s how it started. I knew from then on that I loved photography and taking pictures, so I decided to study it at college and so on.

What stories are you hoping to share in your work?

So far, it’s been a personal story about my journey and experiences, especially around the hijab and converting to Islam. Through my work, I’m trying to put a different narrative out there. I hope to take this further in the future and share other Muslim women’s experiences with the hijab too; I just want people to see it from our actual point of view and direct from our voices.

Can you tell me more about your personal experience with converting to Islam, and how this impacted your photography?

It changed my whole style. I found myself, and I realised the stories I wanted to tell and the issues I felt were important to me had changed. It’s had a huge impact on how I feel and how I am able to use photography. It’s such a powerful tool to be able to tell stories and raise awareness of issues, and being able to have your own unique voice with it.  

What’s it like photographing your family, are they happy to be involved? How do you want to represent them in your imagery?

It’s easy because I am so comfortable around them, so I can really just be myself and be free in directing my project how I want to. I’ve never actually gone out of my comfort zone and not shot my family, but they are happy; they’re used to it and they like to take part and support my work In any way.

I guess it depends but, for my project, my little sister is like my muse. I have also done documentary photography with my family, representing them as they are at home as well as our relationships and bonds with each other.

Can you pick out a couple of favourite shots and talk me through them? 

This image is my favourite image from my recent project My Hijab Has A Voice: Revisited. It’s inspired by the painting La Grande Odalisque; it was known for being unnatural in how the nude woman is painted, and in my image she is posed in a similar manner but fully veiled. It may seem unnatural, as paintings and the objectification of women started as being fully nude only for the purpose of pleasing the male viewer – so it’s about reclaiming our bodies. Being fully veiled mimics these types of paintings whilst also showing the beauty in being veiled; our bodies concealed from eyes seeing us in this objectified way.

In this second image from my project My Hijab Has A Voice: Revisited, myself and my sister are fully covered. She is laying on my lap and we are connecting; it’s not sexual, it’s supportive and there are books which convey the message that, as a woman, I am educated. I always get asked if I converted for a man or if I was brainwashed, as if a women cant make an educated decision to be a certain way. it also mimics paintings, as usually they leave bits of information around like mirrors and brushes to convey this vain message that women are in competition and compete against each other.

The last image is another favourite of mine again from my project My Hijab Has A Voice: Revisited. I am holding her head, her hair is out and we are both covered wearing black. This image concept is based around the idea that all women suffer from being told what to wear; whether we are being forced to cover or being forced to uncover, we are constantly being managed by men. This image is like a symbol of support from women to women, no matter what race or religion or how we dress. We should stick by each other and not against each other.

What are the key takeaways for your audience?

I hope it’s a positive reaction and that they are interested in listening. My message is that, as a woman, I can be educated enough to make my own decisions. I don’t need to be influenced by a man, that Islam is not what the media portrays and if people take time to listen to Muslim women especially, they can learn a lot and see a more meaningful side to our stories.

 

Sxwrker

Erika Long discusses her serene and tonal photo book lensing the celebratory side of sex work

The world of sex work has been under a scrupulous lens for some time now, forming the subject matter of many practicing artists and photographers today. This includes Erika Long, a photographer originally from Athens and currently based in New York, who has recently launched a book that jolts all preconceived ideas of the adult industry – that which is often portrayed in the media. Titled Sxwrker and published by Catalogue Library, the visual tome is just as much a serene and warming depiction of the photographic medium as it is a powerfully enriching narrative: it’s a celebration.

“Sex work is an incredibly important part of making society continue to operate on a functional level,” Erika tells me of the reasoning behind the project. “We live in a culture where kinks and fetishes are unable to be explored openly by a lot of people, whether it’s due to religion, stigmatisation or what have you, and people’s needs don’t just magically disappear. Sex work is the world’s oldest profession for a reason – they’re like underground therapists, yet we ostracise them and imprison them for it.”

Throughout the pages of Sxwrker, Erika employs a half-candid, half-staged style of photography, zooming in on the twists and curves of her subjects’ bodies which, in turn, reveals an abstracted view of reality. The postures are arched, boot-sucking and confident, but the symbolism goes far deeper than a tonal and somewhat sexy aesthetic; Erika’s pictures have a purpose and, through her intimate image-making, she unravels (almost effortlessly) the personal narratives of her subjects. “Their stories are their own and not mine to share,” she notes, “but what I wanted to accomplish was just to open a dialogue and do what I can to get people with critical opinions on sex work to lighten up.”

In one image, a mask shields the face of one of her subjects, posing topless in front of the camera with a soft yet stark backdrop framing the silhouette; in another, a leg crosses over the other in diamond fishnet tights, positioned sculpturally with the rest of the body hidden from view. Besides the more shapely and abstract, there are also a selection of traditional portraits – like the hazy and sepia-infused shot of someone smiling directly into the lens. It shows a different side to the performative nature of the industry. 

“I’m so sick of seeing sex workers being photographed in a dim lit corner of some motel at a highway rest stop,” she continues to explain. “I’m not saying that’s not a reality for some sex workers, but it’s not the reality of all sex workers. All the sex workers I’ve met are proud of their work and love what they do, and I wanted that to come across in the images.” While working on the project, Erika admits that it’s the most fun she’s ever had while working on set, and this inadvertently shines through the work. “Everyone in the book, down to the forward, is a sex worker in some way. Some are active, some are former – some are dominatrixes, some are strippers and some are escorts. Some are friends! I have a few fiends who are sex workers and when I mentioned wanting to start this project they were integral in making it happen.”

Now that Sxwrker has been released into the world, Erika hopes that this will trigger something in an audience that she wouldn’t usually reach – like someone’s aunty, second cousin or colleague. Striving to change the way that sex work is viewed in society, and the world, Sxwrker is part of a necessary conversation and one firmly roots itself in the art-cum-activist photography canon.

Photography courtesy of Erika Long

A Flower in Bloom

Melda Auditia’s structural, hand-crafted graduate collection seeks to examine the notion of femininity

Growing up in Indonesia, Melda Auditia was surrounded by craft. From pottery and textiles to jewellery and ceramics – plus the rich, natural fibres used to build them – needless to say that this exposure would steer the work of Melda, affecting both the composition and themes addressed in her own creations.

The designer, who’s now living in Tokyo, learnt to appreciate the process of handcrafting from a young age. “That’s what made me fall in love with fashion in the first place,” she tells me. The skill of making a quality garment or object from hand takes mastery, time and patience, which is a welcomed contradiction to the constant hum-drum of city life in Tokyo. “Life in Tokyo is incredibly fast-paced, so it’s super easy to forget that there are so many beautiful little details in my surroundings. But one thing I’ve learnt to do is to carve out the time to slow down and take in the little details, because when I let myself absorb everything, that’s when I get inspired.”

While pursuing a degree in fashion design at Bunka Fashion Collage in Japan, Melda began to employ the use of textiles and fabrics as a way of exuding her love of handcrafted processes. But, equally, it was also perceived as a way of discussing cultural and social issues that were greatly affecting the world. And this is exactly how Bloom was borne; a collection comprising large-scale flower dresses that seek to examine the subject of femininity.

Shrouded in soft pastel tones and textual wefts hanging from the shoulder, the artfully delicate compositions found in Bloom are paired with structural elements, like the panels that hang from arm to hip, cinched in corsets, sashes and, most characteristically, the structural – almost sculptural – addition of flowers and petals. Construed from subtle silhouettes and an “explosion” of colours, Melda’s use of materiality is just as important as the meaning attached to it. From sturdy high pressure laminate (HPL) to soft organdy, she toys with different processes and marries them into her own unique vision: using hand-painting, silkscreen, hand-cut petals to form the blooming flowers to achieve her goals.

Not just a beautiful foray into nature and form, the collection also turns a sharp eye onto the concept of femininity and how this is perceived throughout daily life. “Growing up, I realised that society has all these gender boxes and its own definition of what it means to be a woman or a man,” she says. “Since we were little, we have grown accustomed to suppressing our feminine sides: ‘stop crying like a little girl’. That is what they would say to us women when we show the slightest emotion, or to men when they express themselves outside the box of gender we are all put in. But we often forget that, regardless of our gender, we all have a feminine side inside us.”

The symbol of the flower, then, has great importance in Bloom as well as in the wider context of gender and identity. By merging the natural form with a floral petal, for instance, the collection sings as a reminder that “no matter what gender we identify with, or how we look, there is that feminine side that lies within ourselves and there is no right or wrong way to express it,” says Melda. The flower is widely interpreted as a feminine form, varying between cultures, place and time. “Throughout our lives, flowers have always been the symbol of femininity. Even as a kid, it was one of the first few things we came across that’s immediately associated with femininity – no matter the colour and form.” Rich in context and history, it makes for the ideal symbol to spread her messaging within this collection.

“But,” she continues, “this collection is also about the journey of discovering out feminine sides, embracing them and letting them bloom. I want every piece to embody that journey as well, and the process of growth is very much similar to how flowers come to bloom.” 

So who can we envision wearing these pieces, which are artistic and bold to the typical fashion barer? “There are some pieces that you can definitely wear on a day out, but there are also some pieces where I just went all out and let my creative freedom flow,” she says. “But they’re all very personal pieces, not just to me, but it can also be for whoever is wearing them. There is no one single person that I’ve made these pieces for. I feel like everyone has their own story, so I want these pieces to give whoever wears them the freedom to tell their personal story and experience it too.”

ONYX

Shot inside Houston’s famed strip club, Adrienne Raquel’s latest series thrashes the stigma associated with sex work

Kam & Kali, 2020 © Adrienne Raquel. Fotografiska Exhibition 2021

Sex workers have long been stigmatised for their jobs, often criticised and unable to access support, protection and proper working conditions. And with its criminalisation, this makes it difficult for sex workers to report rights violations, especially by the police. But in the last couple of years, and even the past few months, there’s been an increase in dialogue surrounding rights and acceptance – vocalised across the board in creative and non-creative industries alike.

For one, we’ve seen FKA Twigs open up about her past work in a gentleman’s club, which led her to launch a fundraiser for organisations to provide direct financial support for sex workers during the pandemic (which raised £26,707). A couple of years back, the singer also released her infamous music video Cellophane – showing off her beguiling and impressive pole moves to the sound of a slow-paced ballad. Lil Nas X followed in a similar fashion this year, with his video for Montero (Call Me By Your Name) depicting the rapper sliding down a pole to hell before giving the devil a lap dance.

It’s not just the music industry that seems to be having a revival of sorts, either, as these themes are also on the rise within the realms of art and photography. And this is exactly what we’re witnessing in ONYX, a new body of work from New York-based photographer and director Adrienne Raquel, presented as part of her debut solo show at Fotografiska New York. Featuring a dim and racy documentation of the famed Onyx strip club in Houston, Texas, it’s not your typical ensemble of Photoshopped posters and $5 Long Island deals; instead the photographer offers up a refreshing, raunchy and incredibly detailed foray into the lives of the women working in this field.

Where Dreams Lie, 2020 © Adrienne Raquel. Fotografiska Exhibition 2021
Cash Out, 2020 © Adrienne Raquel. Fotografiska Exhibition 2021

ONYX is a steer away from Adrienne’s usually sharp and staged commercial photography, previously snapping tonally rich portraiture of icons such as Travis Scott, Lizzo and Selena Gomez. She’s built an incredible repertoire of commissions for the likes of CR Fashion Book, Cultured Magazine, Elle, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview Magazine, Playboy, T Magazine, V Magazine and Vanity Fair, and she’s also had work included in Mickalene Thomas’ Better Nights exhibition at Miami’s Bass Museum and The New Black Vanguard, curated by Antwaun Sargent and presented by the Aperture Foundation. 

For this latest offering, ONYX shows a sweat-dripping compilation of real women performing in the famed strip club, shot candidly and with a much needed emphasis placed on her subjects – both on and off the stage. In signature Adrienne fashion, the series gives a firm nod to the aesthetics of fantasy and nostalgia, achieved through less-than-subtle hints to the styles of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Cinematically lit, she photographs the dancers in conflicting (yet utterly complimentary) manners, where at times the women will be posing or dancing, with nothing but the crimson light of the stage illuminating the backdrop and their toned, bodily postures. Other pictures zoom into the finer details, like the cash thrown onto the floor, the painted nails of the dancers, the glistening jewellery, sparkling shoes and tattoos.

So as the pandemic continues to highlight the issues and struggles faced within the sex working industry, clearly it’s never been a better time to speak out and dismantle the negative connotations of this line of work. In ONYX, the strength and beauty of these women are brought to the fore, and Adrienne’s photography is part of the wider movement that’s continuing to celebrate female sexuality.

ONYX is currently on view at Fotografiska New York and will be running until September 2021

The Last Dance Pt. 1, 2020 © Adrienne Raquel. Fotografiska Exhibition 2021
Coming Down, 2020 © Adrienne Raquel. Fotografiska Exhibition 2021
Morena, 2020 © Adrienne Raquel. Fotografiska Exhibition 2021
Rain Dance, 2020 © Adrienne Raquel. Fotografiska Exhibition 2021
Vixxen, 2020 © Adrienne Raquel. Fotografiska Exhibition 2021

Stable Vices

In a new book published by Mack, Joanna Piotrowska remedially examines themes of protection, freedom and oppression

The opening pages of Joanna Piotrowska’s Stable Vices begins with a chorus of hand gestures: fingers placed to the eye, and then to the pulse points; the heart and the wrist. The images, in some ways, signal the beginning of a story, or an event about to unfold. But do we brace ourselves in anticipation, or sit back steadily, and let the heart rate drop for a moment?

Similar to a musical introduction, the opening sequence seems to precede the themes (or lyrics) found in the rest of the publication. It’s establishing the tone and structure, not least the rhythm and pace of the main body of work. And in the case of the Polish and London-based photographer’s Stable Vices, published by Mack, we’re seeing a collection of three series combine – all of which are centred around the notion of protection, freedom and oppression. And in that order too.

Following the overture, we’re taken to the first series. A similar fashion to that which came before, the images are inspired by illustrated self-defence manuals – where postures and arm placements are used to signify a protective force of action. It also touches on the work of American feminist, ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan, notably with her work Psychology and Resistance. Carol is an acclaimed scholar and author who argued that girls exhibited distinct patterns based on relationships, care and responsibility for others; that they’re at risk of losing their voice from patriarchy. So when placed in the context of Joanna’s imagery, it raises many questions as to how and why women have to defend themselves. You’re not sure who the subject is confronting, but the awkward poses, cropped frames and intentionally disfigured forms are used to challenge the pressures that women have to face in society.

The next series displays a sequence of domestic sculptures, replicating the DIY dens of our childhood and makeshift abodes of those who may be without a home. Blankets, chairs and clothing amass to build these formations, during which Joanna’s subjects take refuge, hide or nosey inside. And lastly, the third series looks at the idea of entrapment, denoting the cage in all its myriad forms – be it a bird house, zoo enclosure or a line of thick rope. These themes are incredibly poignant and reveal themselves in a formulaic and repetitive manner. Almost like a novel or strategic balled, organised with an intro, climax and resolution. Except in this case, we’re not quite sure whether it’s a happy ending. 

Joanna has predominantly shot in black and white throughout the entirety of her career, and often she’ll be lensing themes of memory and society – combing her signature use of repetition and clusters of threes. Around seven years ago, she published her prolific series Frowst, which was also published in book-form by Mack and was the winner of the 2014 Mack First Book Award. The pictures are of a similar ilk to her newest ensemble, which Mack had described as an “uncomfortable album” of staged family shots, questioning the notion of the family in a modern context.

Stable Vices, in this sense, is Jonna’s latest inquest into societal expectations, only this time her pictures are themed solely on the role of the woman. The arrival of this book comes at a pivotal moment, what with increasing awareness surrounding sexual harassment and safety of women on the streets. There’s so much to be done to ease the fear and pain that women face every day, and Stable Vices almost replicates the types of daily traumas that many may go through: the preparation of defence, the need for a safe space and oppression. At once concerning and here to evoke change, we must also think of her photography as a form of remedy; both for Joanna and for all that end up viewing her work.

Stable Vices is published by Mack and includes essays from Sara De Chiara, Joanna Bednarek and Dorota Masłowska.

Sovereign

Lensing women over the age of 45, Jocelyn Lee’s new book ignites a much-needed paradigm shift

Lisa in St. George, 2019

There can be many an impetus behind a photographer’s love of the medium, whether that’s the immediacy to document one’s surroundings or to tell stories with all but a single shot or sequence. For Jocelyn Lee, a Naples-born and New York-raised photographer, it was the profound contradiction of the medium that enticed her the most. “Photography is a very special medium because it lives in this surreal area between the real and the imagined, touching both the objective and subjective worlds simultaneously,” she explains, affirming an interest Roland Barthes and his theory on photography as being “a new form of hallucination”. In this sense, an image treads the line between falsity and truth. It’s a double-ended sword, where what can be used to document real-life events (like crime scenes or wars) can also be used to tell narratives from the mythical.

Jocelyn recently turned 50 and is happily remarried for the second time; a milestone that ignited a fascination with society’s troubling depiction of women of a certain age. The older woman is often stereotyped as being both “asexual and unattractive”, she says, which is a representation that couldn’t be far from the truth. “So, I began to focus my attention primarily on older women over 45, in order to create celebratory, empowered, sensual and sexy images of them.” This inquest has now been formed into mammoth new publication titled Sovereign, a compilation of photographs generated over 35 years published by Minor Matters.

“I wanted this work to be an assertive counterpoint to the cultural notion that women of a certain age are either invisible or disembodied,” she adds. “This perspective is both inaccurate and cruel, especially given people are living longer and longer. I married my second husband at 53 and I fully intend to have 35 more sexy years with him, at least.”

Nancy at Quitsa Pond, 2016

It’s an interesting and worrying notion that as soon as woman reaches a certain age she becomes undesirable, thrown away and forgotten in time’s cruel invention of ageing. And sadly, this notion has been set in society for years, where those who’ve reached maturity are disregarded and replaced by a younger counterpart – take the media and modelling as examples. Jocelyn, a woman who’s reached this ‘certain age’, explains how there’s some positive attributes to be reaffirmed with the concept. “Getting older has allowed my subject matter to broaden and deepen. I don’t think I could have made Sovereign when I was in my 30s. I feel very connected to the women in the book and see myself in them, or try to. I am certainly very inspired by them, given most of the women in Sovereign are 10-21 years older than I am. They are bravely pointing the way.”

In the wider spectrum of photography, Jocelyn uses her camera as a tool to slow down the world in order to better understand her curiosities. In her eyes, it’s a portal that allows greater inspection and intimacy between herself and a subject. For instance, she once shot a body of work in motel rooms around the country, asking strangers to meet and have their either fully nude or semi-naked portrait taken. “I emphasised that it was not about a sexual encounter and that I simply wanted to make an honest portrait of them,” she says. “Most of those people were men, and that was an incredibly interesting project that I may return to. The question of why? Why do you want your portrait taken by a stranger?”

Quansoo, 2015

Jocelyn has always created work of this kind; the more contemplative, daring and exposed. For the last 35 years, even, her process has remained largely the same – using medium format film cameras to capture nakedness and often photographing women. Sovereign is simply an extension of that, and all of the work proceeding it, where one day she’d “woken up” and realised the immense study she had filed away in her archives. “I have pictures of dear friends pregnant in the 80’s, and then images of them now with the 35-year old child that was in utero at the time of the first picture. It’s quite a study of people over time.”

Only now is she uncovering these pictures from the past, filling out an arc of a life and in turn building decades’ worth of narratives. It really is an immense project, with some subjects photographed during the 80s and 90s – portraits taken at public beaches, ponds or lakes. “While we try to have as much privacy as possible, we can’t always be sure who might come along,” she says, “so the women that pose for me are generally pretty adventurous and open.” One of these women is an 80-year-old writer who’s more than comfortable with being naked. This woman requested to shoot at the public beach, for it was closer to their cars and she didn’t want to endure the longer walk to the one designated for nudists. “We were very close the road and it was definitely not very private. During the shoot, a man and woman emerged from the dunes with their dog and said, ‘Nancy, you’re naked!’ To which she said, ‘Yes I am!’”

Anna Swimming at Ironbound Pond, 2019

Who would’ve known an 80-year-old woman to bare such confidence? Well those who think otherwise are perhaps victims of the media’s stereotyping, that which places emphasis on the older woman as being frail, unadventurous and wrongly undesirable. Jocelyn’s pictures depict the older generation of women as being carefree and utterly admirable; like Lisa, who’s hair runs right down to her ankles. She’s a professional flautist, actor and mayor in a small town in Maine. Or there’s Susan, who posed for Jocelyn on a large rock on Deer Isle with the sunlight illuminating her body with drama and power. 

“I think this kind of imagery matters more now than ever,” she says on a thoughtful note about the book’s impact. “In a world that is saturated with Instagram filters and other youth-obsessed industries, I am trying to highlight the natural beauty of women of all ages and body types. No body is deserving of invisibility and Sovereign is asking for a long overdue paradigm shift. I want to celebrate women of all ages and body types living expansive, empowered and sensual lives.”

Arifa, 2019
Susan’s Back, 2017
Nancy 2019
Marfa Hotel, 2014
Late September, 2017
Jane and Crashing Wave, 2015
Dark Matter #6, 2016
Dark Matter #2, 2016

Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians

JEB (Joan E. Biren) on her revolutionary body of work “by a lesbian, of lesbians”

Pagan and Kady. Monticello, New York. 1978 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions

Launch yourself back to a time in the 1970s. During this period, the LGBTQ+ rights movement was on the rise – spearheaded by the Stonewall riots in New York City. A series of demonstrations by members of the LGBTQ+ community, these riots were prompted by a police raid in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, located in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. The police became violent, and protestors fought back. This was deemed as one of the most important events in the lead up to the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. And in the western world, for that matter. 

As such, the 70s saw an increase in freedom and visibility for those previously marginalised, hidden and shunned from society. It’s a decade that saw mass change, with a few key dates detailing as such; this includes the first Gay Liberation Day March held in New York City, followed by the first LGBTQ+ Pride Parade in Los Angeles; in 1971, the homosexual rights organisation Society Five was initiated from Melbourne Australia, meanwhile homosexuality was decriminalised in Austria, Costa Rica and Finland. 1972 saw Sweden become the first country in the world to allow transgender people to legally change their sex, providing free hormone therapy in response; Hawaii legalised homosexuality this year and in 1975, so did South Australia and California. In 1978, a protest commemorating the StoneWall Riots led to many arrests, which sparked more protests the following year known as the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras, and later the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. This was also the first time that the rainbow flag was used as a symbol for the community. 

Darquita and Denyeta. Alexandria, Virginia. 1979 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions

A rich and complex history, Joan E. Biren, an American photographer and filmmaker known as JEB, has long sought to unearth and combat the years of discrimination found amongst these communities. She’s spent her entire career documenting the lives of lesbians, marking herself as a radical feminist and change maker for the many, and thus inciting her values through groundbreaking photography and work as a member of The Furies Collective, a short-lived yet impactful lesbian commune. 

In 1979, JEB self-published her first book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians. No better word than revolutionary can be uttered when describing the influence of this work, wherein the photographer captured intimate portraits of lesbians from all walks of life – those in their daily environment, working their day jobs, kissing or embracing their lover. In doing so, JEB visited communities across the US throughout the ten years it took to complete this remarkable project, attending pride marches, music festivals and women’s conferences and photographing along the way. A signifier of queer visual history, even to this day, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians continues to have lasting impact. 40 years later, and the publication is now reissued by publisher Anthology Editions, featuring contributions from Lola Flash and Lori Lindsey, plus essays from Tee Corinne, Joan Nestle and Judith Schwartz.

Priscilla and Regina. Brooklyn, New York. 1979 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions

“This book was made for lesbians,” JEB explains of the work. “It was revolutionary because it was the very first book of photographs by a lesbian, of lesbians with their names and showing their faces, with the word ‘lesbian’ on the cover, in the US and probably the world.” The book was received with gratitude and excitement, with the first print run of 3,000 books selling out in five months. The second run sold out just as fast, and the book was deemed as the LGBTQ+ bookstore bestseller list. It was the only known book of this ilk, featuring personal stories and a detailed text by historian Joan Nestle. The pictures were also paired amongst writings from acclaimed authors, Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.

It’s an understatement to say the JEB’s work spurred on cultural, political and societal change. Not only in the moment of publishing, but also in the years that would proceed its initial launch. The thing is, despite the healthy progression in terms of LGTBQ+ representation, there still remains an underlying (or perhaps obvious) tone of vigilance amongst the community; there’s still much progress to be made, and the white male figure still dominates mainstream media. “That must change to include all BIPOC people, it must include trans and non-binary people, fat people, poor people, disabled people, old people, immigrants,” says JEB. “We need representation that is a true refection of all the people in our society, knowing that the LGBTQ+ community includes people from every demographic. And it’s not just about representation. It is about fighting for social justice. We must change the racist, sexist, capitalist systems that profit from excluding so many people from equal representation and from equal freedoms.”

Gloria and Charmaine. Baltimore, Maryland. 1979 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions

After the initial launch in the late 70s, JEB received letters from women across the world who shared their deeply personal stories of how the work had impacted their lives. To see a lesbian in the media, in printed form and in art, was an experience like no other; to see lesbians documented in such a compelling and compassionate manner thus ignited the reasoning to feel less displaced. It affirmed the existence of lesbians and propelled their lives into the mainstream through political movements. So now, a few decades onwards, it’s plain to see how JEB’s body of work has helped to construct a better world – “a way of seeing themselves differently, imagining their lives could be better.” 

“If you can’t visualise something better you are not going to fight for change. If you can see a lesbian mother, if you see a Black lesbian, if you see a lesbian auto mechanic and you never even imagined such a thing; that photograph can give you the courage to dare to become that,” she remarks of the work’s eternal impact. “Seeing something previously unimagined can move us to desire it for ourselves so much that we are moved to action. Adrienne Rich called revolutionary poems ‘a wick of desire’. I want my images to act as ‘wicks of desire’ to make the idea of change irresistible.”

Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians by JEB (Joan E. Biren) is published by Anthology Editions

Jane. Willits, California. 1977 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions
JEB. Dyke, Virginia. 1975 Self portrait from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions
Lori and Valerie. Washington, DC. 1978 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions
Mabel. New York City. 1978 © JEB (Joan. E. Biren) from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians published by Anthology Editions

The Naked Truth

Ceramic artist Eliza Hopewell discusses the importance of being naked, subverting the male gaze and the need for honesty on social media 

“To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself”
– John Berger

Everyone gets 10 inches,” says Eliza Hopewell, with a wry smile. Beginning as an alternative to presents for close friends, Hopewell has since built a hand-painted plate business over two years, bought by the likes of the Rothschilds, Bella Freud and Soho House. We’re sitting in her (former) studio in Camberwell and a tangle of paint, ceramic plates and sketches line the tables. Before the heater is switched on, the air is so cold that our breath unfurls like smoke. “It was only after I’d been selling them to friends of friends for a few months,” she notes, “that I wondered, ‘can I be the kind of person who has a good craft business?’. But I thought fuck it. It just sort of preceded me.”

Hopewell’s unapologetic plates are tightly packed vignettes of colour and twisting female figures that smoke, scowl, shave, masturbate, menstruate, swim, recline and everything else in between. The subjects are typically naked and central to the South-East-London artist’s practice:My whole ethos is freedom and nakedness is a huge part of that. But it’s complicated, as my work takes on a lot of those ideas of classical nudity and objectification in older paintings and I don’t want to reinforce the male gaze. I’m painting naked female bodies because I want to show them as they are, and don’t want to shave off bits of fat or hair or period blood. But we do still live in a world of female objectification, a place where the naked female body is seen as more beautiful than a male body. Inevitably, I’m playing into the marketability of the female form and I would like to paint more men. All bodies are beautiful to draw, they’re so fascinating.”

I ask whether she is encouraged by recent progress in gender equality, in certain parts of the world, and whether this will increasingly make her work less scandalous? “Feminism is super mainstream at the moment, which is great,” she replies, “but it’s also made me question the relevance of my plates. So much has changed and showing a girl on her period, for example, is already less controversial than when I started. The artist Lisa Yuskavage said that ‘If you’re showing people things that they like and want to see, then you’re doing it wrong’. I don’t want to indulge people.”

For Hopewell, who trained as a painter and printmaker at Glasgow School of Art, the initial reason behind her commissions was egalitarian: “Old portraits in the National Gallery are made up of aristocracy, people who can afford to have these commissions done. I liked the idea that you could have a plate of yourself looking grand as fuck – that was exactly the same as what someone like Kate Moss had. That you had one even though you live in a council flat and went to the nearest state school and you’re on the dole.” However, the business model soon became too physically demanding, financially light and had strayed too far from the original concept. “At first it was fun, contrasting kitsch decorative things that you would find in your grandma’s house, but once it was just commissions over and over again, I was no longer pushing any boundaries. I was painting pictures of families fully clothed and wasn’t getting paid nearly enough for the amount of time they took, sometimes as much as 15 hours. I was reluctant to bring the prices up for a long time because I believe in art being accessible and didn’t want to make it into an exclusive club, but I’ve always been treading this line between a craft business and a fine art practice.”

I note that many artists grapple with issues of self-worth, particularly when it comes to costing up their labour in a market that either devalues or hyper-inflates their work. She nods, “it’s also a lonely career choice, I’m literally on my own 90% of the time. Plus, at the start, I saw it as narcissistic to declare ‘I have this vision and I will put it out into the world’ ­– like the world needs to know. I’m a real accidental businesswoman and incredibly disorganised. Believe me, behind the scenes it’s a bloody nightmare!”.

Our conversation turns from the physical act of making to the online world, a space in which she is clearly in her element. I suggest that a large part of her rapid success has been down to her use of Instagram. Using the platform to not only showcase her work, but dance to The Slits, engage in debates on cultural appropriation and openly discuss mental health and relationships has clearly won her a lot of love in the digital age of cynicism, falsity and vacuity – “It’s natural to me, I’m the least private person ever. It’s also about being unapologetic, being totally who I am and as aggressively myself as I can possibly be. Today, honesty is almost a political act.”

Social media and the internet generally, we agree, has provided safe spaces for the previously persecuted, but also created splinter cells of arrogance and ignorance. Hopewell states that “Internet wokeness has increased suddenly and the echo chamber quality of it worries me. Yes, we can do the gender theory fast – in the space of four years my perspectives changed drastically – but in practice I think it naturally takes humans a lot longer to change their behaviour. There’s a real gap between what people think they should say and how they actually think. The internet encourages public shaming and all the finger pointing makes people extremely paranoid. I sound like a Daily Mail reader right now, but there’s a bit of a left-wing lynch mob that goes around virtue signalling.”

“I’m keen to be honest on social media, so I’ve been doing a lot of undoing recently. I’m trying to be open when I say ‘sometimes we don’t know things, sometimes we get things wrong – that’s ok!’. I want people to think deeply about their politics instead of following a status quo of how things should be said. It’s okay to have had ideas and acted in ways that are racist, sexist or homophobic as long as this something you are now working to overcome. Dismantling racism isn’t about repression, it’s about becoming conscious of your learned behaviours from a systematically racist society and learning to undo them.”

When I ask her what’s next, Hopewell pauses briefly before looking out her window at the clustered ash trees, “I’m tempted to totally change track. At the moment all I want to do is paint trees, I never realised how beautiful they are. It’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve had the time and space to think about other projects. I’ve suddenly got these days off where I get to come into the studio and make what I want. It’s spooky and it’s hard – ‘oh fuck what do I want to say?’. I haven’t had that feeling in a while and it’s anxiety inducing, but also incredibly exciting.” Whatever she does decide to say, I have no doubt it will be joyful, direct and honest.

Photography Lauren Maccabee

elizahopewellplates.com

The Bowers Of Bliss

Radical feminist photomontage artist Linder discusses her latest work for Art on the Underground, the importance of reclaiming public space and uncovering lost stories

Featuring Londinium sex workers in AD 43, an 1815 illustration of the Night Queen from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, and the first female underground porter in 1944, Art on the Underground’s latest public commission by British artist Linder demands to be seen. Eyes, flowers and a tangle of female figures combine and contrast, overlap and bleed into one another. A bright palimpsest of artefacts, paintings and photos.    

Displayed on an 85 metre-long billboard at Southwark station, ‘The Bower of Bliss’ is the result of four months of research into the history, myths and fables of the women who lived in the south London borough. Intending to ‘reclaim the representation of women from the male gaze to form a picture of empowerment for women everywhere’, the work’s title wryly nods to both the tube station’s English landscape garden inspired architecture and Victorian slang for the female form. Drawing on source materials from the Cuming Museum Collection, the London Transport Museum Collection and lost property offices, the billboard will continue to change seasonally until October 2019, each new layer building on the previous collage. Completed in conjunction with the Mayor of London’s Behind Every Great City campaign, it forms part of Art on the Underground’s 2018 programme of exclusively female artists.     

Linder is best known for her radical feminist photomontage, combining domestic imagery from women’s fashion magazines with pornography and other archival material. Her work is direct and disruptive, explicitly challenging assumptions on gender and commodity, and the implicit relationship between the two. Port talked to her about the ambitious project, as well as the importance of reclaiming lost stories and public space.  

Photography Benedict Johnson

What draws you to photomontage?

Every day in London we’re bombarded by the photographic image. Photographs are experienced at all sorts of scales via the billboards and hoardings of the cityscape, right down to the intimacy of the selfie on a smart phone. It gives me immense pleasure to work with photographs generated over the last hundred years or so – I carefully select each photograph so that it faithfully depicts the times in which it was taken. I work with a surgeon’s scalpel to cut up the photographs that I find, and each cut-out then becomes a small cultural biopsy. All sorts of new meanings are created when a cut-out of a “glamour model” from 1968 is glued onto a photograph of a painting from 1880 of red water lilies in southern India. The latter was painted by Marianne North, a woman with an extraordinary biography, in full contrast to the glamour model about whom we know nothing. This is just one of several billboard photomontages at Southwark, the same billboard also includes a cut-out of a teenage girl’s backpack with its contents barely contained. The backpack still lies unclaimed in TfL’s lost property department amidst tens of thousands of umbrellas, mobile phones, children’s toys, musical instruments and other seemingly precious belongings now abandoned by their owners.

What kind of city would we live in if artwork replaced adverts?

Oh, if only this could happen! London would then become an illustrated book of sorts, with its architecture, people and traffic mingling within the insides of artists’ heads, rather than being held at the mercy of the tropes of advertisers. The impulse to buy, to acquire, to escape the city, would be visually muted. Daily life would become enriched, puzzling and inspirational, plus London would have instant international renown for its radicalism!

During your research residency, how did you select the women of Southwark? Are there any stories that really stood out?

I thoroughly enjoyed the long periods of research within Southwark’s archives and collections. At the Cuming Collection, for example, the curator there opened box after box of delights. I saw the eyes of Egyptian mummies, a 1920s “mutton bone” doll from the back streets of London, a Roman votive in the shape of a womb, plus a carved figure whose breasts are the very opposite in shape to the breasts that we see in all contemporary advertising i.e. her breasts point down and not up. All of this imagery and more can be seen on the billboards at this very moment, the visitor can also see photographs of other treasures that hide away in local collections patiently awaiting discovery.

From the archive at Transport for London, I wanted to show images of women that would help to weave a narrative around the station. The key figures that I feature from the archive are that of a porter, a driver and a conductor. As you approach the entrance of Southwark station, you see Eric Henri Kennington’s painting of Elsie Birrell from 1944. Elsie Birrell was one of the first ever female porters to be recruited to work on the underground, we can only imagine now what a moment of great empowerment it must have been for those women. Likewise, there’s a photograph from 1962 of a bus conductor, Agatha Claudette, and an unnamed woman driving a bus in the late eighties. I like the idea of featuring known and unknown women on the billboards, hinting at how even recent histories can so easily be lost.

Detail of The Bower of Bliss, Linder, 2018

Why is it important for Art on the Underground to run a programme of exclusively female artists?

Your question is as telling as my answer. For decades, posters on the underground were designed predominantly by male designers and artists. TfL was unusual amidst its contemporaries though in that it included posters designed by women from as early as 1910 – Ella Coates designed a poster for Kew Gardens that year and many other women followed in her footsteps in the subsequent decades.

For centuries though, no one ever questioned or remarked upon galleries and institutions that featured only male artists, and as a result we now have a long way to go to redress that imbalance. Art On The Underground are pioneering in this respect and this year’s programme has meant that myself and the other commissioned female artists have been able to respond to the landscape in which we find ourselves with an awareness of each others individual response.

How can London reclaim its public space?

I think that reclamations of public space can happen via a wide spectrum of action, from the individual to the collective, from the civic to the personal. The imagery that a city allows to be paraded on its many billboards is a good place to start, introducing more green spaces is another. An awareness of how we all contribute to making cities into safe and pleasurable spaces is of paramount importance in such potentially divisive times, ‘The Bowers of Bliss’ play their small part in this.

art.tfl.gov.uk