LETTER TO THE LEGENDARY LESBIAN PHOTOGRAPHER JOAN E. BIREN

Dear Joan,

O JEB, Ah I found you!! Michelle Crone talked about you these days that I am in Provincetown, Charlotte Bunch talked about Furies and you were there too, and I thought: now is the moment for me to write to you!  I wish you a story that I will tell you now.

My name is Lepa Mladjenovic, I’m a feminist lesbian and I live in Belgrade.  I love photographs. When I was a student, I used to develop black and white photos some time.  I would go out on bicycle and take photos of gardens, women on markets, in the country that was called Yugoslavia.  I would develop them in a darkroom, and I even used my own developed photographs in my graduation thesis on Alternatives to psychiatry.  I loved to watch and collect photos & my favorite author then was Diana Arbus. This was in the end of seventies, and in one of my hitch- hiking journeys in Europe, in the famous Sisterwrite feminist bookstore in London, I found both of your books:  Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (1979) and Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front (1987).  So it must have been the end of eighties.  I lost my breath!  I was so moved I can’t tell you.  These two are my lesbian golden books and they have a special place in my life.

                                                                            

I already was reading Adrienne Rich, Joan Nestle, Charlotte Bunch and Audre Lorde & I found all their faces in your books!  This was a lesbian feast.  There was no internet then, so each photo was a world in front of me.  And in the second book all women have their names and professions.  It sounded unbelievable in the beginning.  I watched them with special respect I had never felt before.  Who was I to respect in the old set of society?   Not many, but lesbians in your books, and each one of them!  Your photos also touched the deepest place of my hopelessness.

When I would feel low, Oh it’s impossible, your photos would say, Knock Knock, Hello Sister Lepa, look, we made it already!  –Thank you my sister JEB, I tell you today.

firewatcherAnd I tell you more: the photo of a woman in Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival with naked breasts!  I will never forget the moment when I saw this photo for the first time.  First I thought I should not even look at her, I should pass it quick. It was of course old imprint of uneasiness, and then I said,  “Oh wait a minute,” my breath was excited, I thought I entered Les Guérillères in live!   Is it possible?  I watched and watched her again.  New freedom with tenderness started to spill in my eyes. She is my sister outsider just like me!  That photo is still unbelievable.  I think this is a historic photograph,  and that we should give you and her the WORLD LESBIAN AWARD! I am moved to tears just watching her face and body that represent new freedoms unimaginable to women just some time ago.

priscila&reginaThere are many of your fantastic photos, but I will choose one more. The one of two women Priscila and Regina laying on the grass in Brooklyn, 1979.  I love them.  The Tender World of Women! I can’t tell you how many times I photocopied this photo and gave copies to my lesbian friends when the first photocopying machine came in the Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence, Belgrade, where I worked during the wartime.   When I would finish counseling, in the evening I would do a gift for myself – an excitement in photocopying  lesbian photos!

Now let’s go back to the end of eighties.  In that time I was just few years a lesbian and did not know more then few lesbians in Belgrade.  The same old story, first we think we are the only one.   But then in 1990 my big love story with a woman in Italy finished and in 1991 the war started.  The good news was that I was one of the rare lesbians in Belgrade who, by chance of my parents’ support, have a flat of my own.   This was a great luck and we used to meet there and call oursleves a Lesbian Free Republic!  So, when the war started in 1991 I already had books of US feminist lesbians, few brochures of dykes to watch out for and your 2books of photographs!  Practically that’s how I kept my lesbian self alive in the wartime – with all of you within me.  I read every single line in both of your books many times.  And, often lesbians used to come to me, and whenever some lesbian would stay overnight, I would end up sitting with her on the bed watching the JEB photo books!  With my lovers as well.  First one book and then the other.  I loved to feel together with them this excitement of discovering the freedoms yet unreached in Eastern Europe.

The next story:  In one of the anti-war years, maybe around 1994… we organized in my flat A Lesbian Summit!  We had two lesbians from US, Julie Mertus and another one, then Haya Shalom from Jerusalem, Masha Gessen from Moscow, Judith Hatfaludi from Budapest and three of us from Belgrade. In that Summit Masha insisted that we get rid of the title Free Lesbian Republic, because it was not radical enough. Who wants republic now?!  So we became International Lesbian Conspiracy!  We sat in my kitchen and discussed who will be in charge of what in this Lesbian Conspiracy.  I was to be in charge of Olive Oil – for inside and outside body desires.  Many things were happening that night and also Masha told us that her friends, lesbians in Russia, used to meet, cook dinner, eat together and recite the poems from Marina Tzvetayeva!  Marina Tzvetayeva is one of the best poets of Europe ever, and she had felt love for women and wrote of it in symbols, metaphors and lyric descriptions.  Lesbians in Russia endlessly search for these metaphors, they adore her, and in old communist style they would know her poems by heart.   Masha was storytelling us about her lesbian friends in Moscow.  And, in my turn I brought JEB 2photo books to watch together.  Each one of us was supposed to say who she likes from the books. Imagine how much lesbian joy in that summit!The next story is during the Women in Black Against War International Conference in Jerusalem in 2005. I was sitting in the cafeteria for a breakfast and in one moment I looked around and I saw a woman near me with a familiar face.  Where do I know this fascinating large woman from?   I came to her and said “I know you from somewhere.”  She told mw her name and then I thought, “Where do I know her name and her face too if I have never met her?!”  It took me sometime and then I said, “You must be in the book of JEB!” This was Elana Dykewomon!  I adore Elana and she was in Belgrade this spring with our lesbian community. She can tell you this story in her words

The last time I watched the 2books it was last year in October with two young lesbians, Ejsi Garić and Maja Halilović from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who came to Belgrade to be with us on Pride Belgrade 2011.  But thousand of neo-fascists were threatening for months earlier that they will come to ‘swipe us off, mince us in the meat machine &so…’. So, after these threats, the Ministry of Interior instead of standing on our side, declared one day before that the Pride Parade banned.  In few hours with text messages, we organized a Pride Picnic in Belgrade instead.  Sunčica Vučaj had the idea, she cooked soft muffinsJ, and here is her photo of the Picnic! (From L: Ejsi, Maja, doggy Jelka, Lepa, Tanja).  Maja and Ejsi were sleeping in my flat, and after midnight we all three laid down on my double-bed for “A pleasure-time!”  They took cigarettes and beer, I got le chocolat noir and we discussed, laughed and watched one and then another of your magic books until the early dawn.

pride picnic

Thank you dear beautiful JEB for inspiring our desire for freedom in the lesbian community in Belgrade, and the world.  We cherish you in our excitements.

Lepa

 

&

ispred labrisa

My lesbian friends, in 2011, I fotographed in front of the building where the Lesbian organization Labris had offices in Belgrade. From L:  Desa, Mirjana, Nina, Divna, Tijana, Jodie.

lepa mladjenovic waving to you

from Provincetown, MA

September 2012.

ps.

lepathis is me, in 2011 in Novi Sad, taken by a lesbian friend.

 

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