Jess T. Dugan

BY Jean Dykstra, September 6, 2018

While making portraits of members of the LGBTQ community for her ongoing series Every Breath We Drew, Jess T. Dugan heard a particular concern from young trans people: they had no road maps for what their lives would look like as they aged. “Representation is so important,” she says. “When you live in a world where you don’t see yourself represented in the larger culture, it takes a toll that’s greater than people realize.” 

To Survive on this Shore, Dugan’s latest body of work, made with her partner, Vanessa Fabbre, offers a range of road maps in photographs and interviews with older transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Kehrer Verlag has published Dugan’s images coupled with interviews by Fabbre, a social worker and assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, and the photographs and interviews are on view at projects+gallery in St. Louis, MO, from September 6 through October 10. On September 29, Catherine Edelman Gallery will hold a book-signing with Dugan and Fabbre at Expo Chicago.

Over the course of five years, Dugan and Fabbre traveled around the country, from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Long Island, New York, from Minneapolis to Denver, Chicago to Santa Fe, to photograph and interview people from various ethnic and economic backgrounds. One of the noteworthy aspects of this project is the recognition that race and class have as much of an impact as gender identity on the moment-to-moment negotiations in an individual’s daily life. As Chris, one of the subjects in the series, puts it: “ … there’s layer upon layer upon layer of complication when interfacing with the world.” 

In nearly every portrait, the subject gazes steadily into the camera and out at the viewer; the trust between each individual and Dugan is tangible, and she honors that trust with photographs that underscore their humanity and their individuality. Dugan’s empathetic portraits are paired with the subject’s specific stories. Bobbi, 83, a white trans woman from Detroit who had a career in the Air Force and recalls playing golf with several U.S. presidents, holds a model airplane, a memento from her previous life. Caprice, a woman of color from Chicago with long red nails, who describes herself as “a woman of trans experience,” is draped across a couch in a silky slip dress, smoking a cigarette. One of 23 children (her mother was supportive of her from the start), she is now an activist and advocate for trans women of color. Dugan and Fabbre are intentional in balancing the struggles with the triumphs in these portraits. Some of the people in the book have been rejected by family members or faced crushing, isolating discrimination. Others have found new communities or chosen new families. Without sugarcoating the complexity, I’ll give Caprice the last word: “God blessed me with the whole thing,” she says. “I am the greatest gift I have to offer.”