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Celebrating Womyn

Saturday, August 08, 2009



Courtesy of Lens Blog, NYTimes.com

It seemed a paradox.

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was started in 1976 as a private space for women, most of whom are lesbians, to set themselves apart and away from scrutinizing eyes. “For many of us, it is a relaxing, organic environment where we feel most whole and most truly ourselves,” the festival’s Web site says.

And yet there was Angela Jimenez, the first three-time (1995-97) Ivy League Heptagonal champion in the Heptathlon. The Penn graduate, now an accomplished photojournalist, capturing intimate moments and binding them into a book.

The result is a remarkably intimate portrait of shared ritual and camaraderie, but one that could only come about with unusual circumstances and departures from more usual journalistic practice.

To begin with, there is Ms. Jimenez, a freelance newspaper and documentary photographer. “I’m a gay person and I was interested in doing gay stories,” she said. Ms. Jimenez encountered the festival in 2003 when there on assignment for Velvetpark Magazine, a lesbian-oriented publication. She said she was inspired to return to take more photographs, and several summers later settled on her subject: the team of workers who arrive on the festival grounds in the Michigan woods and spend weeks assembling, and then dismantling, its infrastructure and buildings.

“It’s a major institution in lesbian feminist culture,” she said. “What really fascinated me about the workers is they are both literally and metaphorically building the community.”

She sent a proposal to the festival organizers. A lengthy, laborious negotiation ensued. Much of the discussion centered on protecting the privacy of the women attending the festival. “This was a really anti-establishment movement when it happened,” Ms. Jimenez explained. “It was separatist. As women, and as gay women, it was a move to create a space that valued women, and that valued being a lesbian, that mainstream society didn’t.”

Every person photographed had the right to approve publication of the pictures, and the festival was given the right to use most of the photos. In the end, few pictures were ruled out by subjects, Ms. Jimenez said.

“This whole process was very different from anything I’ve ever done, both logistically and artistically,” she said. It was a process she called incredibly stressful.

Key to gaining permission, she said, was the trust she had won by already being a “member of the community” of the festival. In 2006, Ms. Jimenez worked as a festival photographer, and joined carpentry work crews in 2007 and 2008. Sorting out her roles as participant and photographer was not always easy. “To continue to be a documentarian and equally be a person, that was hard. It’s hard to know when to put the camera down and when to pick it up, sometimes.”

For the complete story on Ms. Jimenez's work, head to Lens Blog - NYTimes.com.

- A.S.