“The first place I found photographs of people who actually looked like me and who I could relate to was in the pages of fine art photography books,” Jess T. Dugan said. Dugan came out when she was 13 years old, and began questioning her gender when she was 14 or 15. At the time, there was comparatively little in popular culture in the way of queer representation, much less showing the range of gender expression. But there was solace to be found in the art world.
In the decades since, Dugan, who identifies as non-binary but uses she/her pronouns, has sought to both understand her own relationship to gender and share the lives of others with similar experiences through fine art photography. “I really chose to embrace the politicization of my identity and channel it into my work,” she said. “At my core, I’m interested in the process of how we each come to know our authentic selves and what happens when we assert those authentic selves in the larger world.”
Accordingly, Dugan feels it’s critically important to see yourself represented in the world around you. One of the forces that drives her work is a desire to create representations of queer experiences to which even non-queer people can connect and relate.While Dugan has long been involved in LGBT activism, it was with photography that she found her voice could be the loudest. She hopes the work she makes can lead to social change, understanding, and a greater awareness of LGBTQ issues.
In “Every Breath We Drew,” for instance, a project Dugan has been working on since 2011, she explores queer identity, desire, and intimacy through vulnerable, light-splashed portraits of herself and those close to her. The series is definitive of her raw style: at once quiet and meditative, sensual and arresting.
That same style is highlighted in Dugan’s most recent project, “To Survive on This Shore,” a moving series of portraits feature transgender and gender nonconforming individuals over the age of 50.
Dugan completed “To Survive on This Shore” with her partner Vanessa Fabbre, a social worker who conducted interviews to accompany the portraits, each of which celebrates subjects who have lived truthfully in and through times where transgender activism, acceptance, and visibility barely existed, if at all.
Gloria, 70, stands glamorously on a Chicago street with red lips, a tan fur coat wrapped around her, black heeled boots leaving footprints on freshly fallen snow. Sky, 64, sits in the passenger seat of a red truck, a long salt and pepper beard hanging over his black leather shirt. Barbara, 70, is vibrant in magenta, surrounded by a bevy of plants.
Dugan constructed the portraits in full collaboration with her subjects, often in their homes, to make sure they felt comfortable and respected. She prefers to photograph without an assistant in order to forge an emotional connection with her subject. “If that doesn’t happen, it’s really, really difficult for me to make the kind of portrait I want to make, which is one that transcends the specifics of that moment to be about something bigger and more complicated than that specific set of circumstances or place where that portrait was made,” she said.
The project, conducted between 2013 and 2018, has been celebrated for its commitment to documenting transgender and gender nonconforming history. It has been published as a book, the second edition of which was released in July 2019. “To Survive on This Shore” also toured as an exhibition around the country this year. Dugan continues to expand “Every Breath We Drew” as well, now focusing on queer families, as she and her partner have a new daughter.
“I have always used photography as a way to understand myself and my position in the world,” Dugan said. “I have a long history of making self-portraits at various points throughout my work, but also I have used them as a way to connect with other people in a way that’s really meaningful and intimate and powerful for me...I feel like I’m part of a larger community and connected to people in this way that I wouldn’t be able to be without my photography.”
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