“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.”