Jess T. Dugan: Look at me like you love me | CLAMP

BY Elyssa Goodman, December 1, 2022

One way to describe love might be “empathy in action.” Look at me like you love me, Jess Dugan’s exhibition at CLAMP through January 7, asks viewers to regard their subjects with empathy, to recognize and acknowledge another’s experiences.

Dugan’s work has long been an exercise in queer representation, and their subjects exist on a spectrum of gender and sexual identity. In these images of individuals and couples, Dugan creates a sense of intimacy between the viewer and subject. Influenced early on by portrait photographers including Catherine Opie, Dugan suggests that presenting oneself, unedited, in front of the camera can be a radical act. “I want to tell you things; I want you to know my story,” Dugan writes in the exhibition’s wall text. “There is so much I can’t say in my photographs, though it’s all there, just below the surface, if you know what to look for.”

©Jess T. Dugan, Oskar and Zach (embrace), 2020. Courtesy the artist and CLAMP

Look at me like you love me feels like a call to action, a plea for compassion and understanding. Many of the portraits are set in intimate spaces – a bedroom, a bathtub. Some subjects present a frank and open gaze to the photographer; others look away from the camera – like Kalven (looking down) – or embrace each other protectively, like Shira and Sarah. All of Dugan’s subjects have allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of the camera, and Dugan responds with respect and grace.

Punctuating the portraits are moments of respite: a bedroom in Boston, wisteria dangling near a fence, a sunrise seen through a window, a stream of light, a flower, a trickle of water. These images are like portraits without a subject, images of people who are absent or missing.

Dugan includes self-portraits at the beginning and end of the exhibition, one in which they are clothed, the other shirtless, revealing top-surgery scars and tattoos (one of which says “fighter”). Other subjects are from Dugan’s own community, including their partner, Vanessa Fabbre, photographed floating peacefully in the water in Provincetown, Rhode Island. Even encircled by dark water, Fabbre seems resilient and self-possessed, emotions that extend across the exhibition.