To Survive on This Shore: An Interview with Jess T. Dugan
Artist Jess T. Dugan and social worker Vanessa Fabbre’s To Survive on This Shore documents the vibrancy and plurality of transgender and gender nonconforming elders across the United States. The projects’ various incarnations – as exhibition and book, across social media and academia – bring the stories of their subjects to a multiplicity of audiences. The individuals in To Survive on This Shore do not perform a position, but rather give testimony to the triumphs and vicissitudes of their lives, their relationships, and their identities. The authors center the project – which combines photographic portraiture and anthropology – on the voices of the 86 different people whom they met throughout their travels across the United States for over five years. While older trans and gender nonconforming people are underrepresented in our culture, Dugan and Fabbre’s project attests to the longevity of the trans community and speaks to the spectrum of experiences at the intersection of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and geography.
I spoke with Jess T. Dugan about the project’s conceptual aim and practical methodology, her approach to image-making, and the ethics behind creating a dignified portrait. Dugan holds an MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago, a Master of Liberal Arts in Museum Studies from Harvard, and a BFA in Photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She has exhibited at venues including Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Aperture Foundation, and Museum of Contemporary Photography. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Harvard Art Museums, and Saint Louis Art Museum, among others.
Jack Radley: Let’s discuss To Survive on This Shore. How did the project begin, and how has grown over the last 5 years?
Jess T. Dugan: Prior to making To Survive on This Shore, I had been photographing within LGBTQ communities and making work that explored issues of identity, including gender and sexuality, for many years. In 2012, I met my partner, Vanessa Fabbre, a social worker whose research focuses on the intersection of LGBTQ communities and aging. Even though we were in different fields, we realized we had overlapping interests, so we decided to work on this project together, with me making the photographs and her conducting and editing the interviews. From the beginning, we conceived of it as both an exhibition and a book.
We made the first portraits in 2013. We started with people that we had known from our previous work within trans communities, particularly in Boston, where I had lived, and in Chicago, where Vanessa and I had lived and worked for a long time. For the next two years, we made portraits and interviews as we were able and as we traveled. The project spread through word of mouth over the five years we were working on it. Each person we photographed would end up telling other people, and they would get in touch and want to participate.
In early 2015, we had about 25 portraits and interviews and created a website. We got a flurry of press that was kicked off by a feature in the New York Times. That press moment was really significant for identifying subjects all around the country. After that feature went live, I received more than 100 emails from people all around the country who wanted to participate.
Our personal connections to subjects, as well as the passage of time, were significant to identifying subjects. I also attended several trans conferences around the country, particularly the Trans Wellness Conference in Philadelphia and the Gender Odyssey Conference in Seattle. I reached out to LGBTQ nonprofit organizations as I would travel for my other ongoing work and they would connect me with individuals in that community whom they thought were a good fit for the project. Finding and meeting subjects was a multi-pronged approach. We certainly had people reach out to us who wanted to participate, but we also sought out people within the community who were significant as activists or leaders.
From a more conceptual point of view, we knew from the very beginning that we wanted to include a diverse group of subjects in the project. We sought diversity in terms of age, race and ethnicity, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and life narrative. We went across the country and ended up photographing and interviewing 86 people over a five-year period. We were very intentional about going to places that are not often thought of as being places that have large LGBTQ populations, such as the rural South, the Midwest, etc.
JR: How did you decide on where specifically to travel, and how did you fund it?
JTD: We decided early on that it was important to go to each person’s home or personal space and spend time with them, photograph, and interview them there. That created a logistical challenge in terms of the travel and the funding. I often say that I could have gone to a trans conference and made 100 portraits against a seamless background in one weekend, but I wanted to do something much more in-depth and much more personal. The travel piece was really important.
This project was completely self-funded; it was a labor of love to make it happen. I travel often to give artist talks at universities or teach workshops. I would essentially book a job in a city and then add a day or two to stay and photograph for the project. In some cases, I would get a job somewhere and then I would reach out to the local community and find people to photograph. In other cases, I really wanted to go to a particular city, so I would make an effort to book a job in that city and then stay to photograph. Throughout the making of the project, I got a little bit of grant support for my ongoing practice. There were also one or two cases in which a group invited me to photograph in their city and would support my trip to get there. That happened with one group in Fresno, California because they really wanted their local trans community to be represented, particularly because when people think of the trans community in California, they think of San Francisco or Los Angeles.
This is certainly not the sexiest part of art-making, but there was a pretty significant amount of behind-the-scenes logistics in terms of identifying subjects, keeping in touch with them, and following up, as well as booking the travel and scheduling photo shoots. Sometimes two or three years would pass between the time when someone reached out to me and when I actually made it to them.
JR: When you’re working with subjects whom you may not know well, what does that process look like?
JTD: My relationship to my subjects varies in different bodies of work. In my project Every Breath We Drew, for example, most of the subjects are people that I know very well, or I had at least met before. That’s a different kind of interaction in terms of making a photograph. With To Survive on This Shore, in most cases the subjects were people who I had never met prior to showing up to their house to make their portraits and interview them. It’s important that I’m highly vettable. People would check out my website and talk to other people in the community before agreeing to do the project, and likewise, I would often be introduced to somebody through somebody else who I knew. Even though we were strangers, there was a larger communal aspect to me finding subjects. I chose to travel either alone or if possible with Vanessa, but I intentionally didn’t bring along a crew, assistants, or anyone else with me. I felt like, in order to get the kind of intimacy I was looking for, it really needed to be just me and the subjects.
JR: How do you see your role as photographer? To what extent are you directing the photographic situation?
JTD: I would always meet people at their homes, and in some cases they would suggest a location which was meaningful to them. In one case we met in the National Forest, in another case we met at an LGBTQ center. I had never seen the locations before, similar to the subjects themselves. It was definitely a process of working with each subject to figure out what was the best location for the portrait and what pose felt comfortable to them.
I trained on a 4×5 view camera, which I used exclusively for about ten years, so my method of photographing is very slow, intentional and collaborative. In most cases my shutter speeds were quite slow and I photographed using all natural light. I spend a lot of time on each portrait and I give direction in terms of the formal qualities. But, I was always responding to the specifics of each person and I was trying to do my best to create a portrait that honored their identity, who they were, and their story.
I often say that I direct my photographs quite a lot, but I’m trying to direct people into the most compelling or authentic versions of themselves. I never wanted anyone to perform for the camera or play a character. In a couple of cases, people had outfit options, so we would choose those together. Out of necessity there was a lot of dialogue and communication between me and each person as we were photographing and making a portrait.
JR: What was your training like? I know you studied with Dawoud Bey in graduate school. Could you talk about working with him or other mentors over the years?
JTD: My introduction to photography, and in some ways my more formative technical years, happened at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. I majored in photography, which I knew I would do from the beginning. There was an amazing faculty in the photography department that included Abe Morell, Nick Nixon, David Hilliard, Laura McPhee, Shellburne Thurber and Barbara Bosworth. I learned from some pretty amazing photographers, many of whom worked with portraiture and large format photography. From the very beginning I was drawn to portraiture, and that’s what I’ve focused on almost exclusively ever since then.
When I was looking to go to graduate school, it was actually hard for me to find a program that topped MassArt in a way, because I had such an amazing faculty. I ended up going to Columbia College Chicago primarily to work with Dawoud Bey, whose work I admired. He’s also a photographer working in portraiture, working with large format photography, and working within marginalized communities. We worked very closely together for the three years that I was there. Dawoud challenged me formally, and we also had a lot of conversations about what it means to work within marginalized communities: both the responsibility and the burden that comes when you’re trying to tell someone’s story and represent a point of view that is underrepresented. We’re still in touch and I see him regularly when I go back to Chicago.
JR: To Survive on This Shore has many different lives. There’s the traveling exhibition at projects+gallery in St. Louis, the book, the social media takeovers you’ve been doing, and more.
JTD: To Survive on This Shore is one project, but there are many different versions of it because we want it to function both within and outside of art spaces. We always conceived of it as both a book and an exhibition, but throughout the making of the project, several other end manifestations took hold. One of these is a limited-edition portfolio with 12 photographs and texts at a slightly smaller scale designed specifically for university and teaching art museums. We’re also donating the full interview transcriptions and portraits to several archives to preserve them for future research. We edited down the original transcriptions significantly to get the quotes you see in the gallery and book, and we really wanted all of the original history to be preserved, particularly for research that may exist outside of an art context. Vanessa is writing about the interviews in scholarly journal articles, which are meant to reach social work practitioners and other researchers to influence that field. We’re also collaborating with several non-profit organizations, who are using the work for educational purposes and advocacy campaigns.
JR: How do text and image function in those various forms? How do you see the text panels in the gallery exhibition?
JTD: From the very beginning, we knew that the text and the image would always be linked. They’re always shown and reproduced together. In terms of the gallery space, we decided early on that the text wouldn’t actually be an art object. It’s not a letterpress print on nice paper that you buy, collect, or preserve in the way you would an art object. But, it is really important that it lives alongside the photograph. In the gallery space, we created text panels that are much bigger than a wall label but smaller than the photographs so people could easily read the interview texts. It was also important that they were a comfortable size for reading, which is something I think about now even more so after having worked with older adults for five years. The same texts are reproduced in the book; in many ways, a book is a much more obvious and natural vehicle for combining text and imagery.
JR: You and Vanessa only appear in the form of an interview at the end of the book, how was that decision made? How did you consider your own presence in the book?
JTD: We’re not foregrounding ourselves in the book – we’re really foregrounding the stories of our subjects. We felt like our role as makers was in service of telling the stories of the people in the project. When we were making the book, people would ask, “How did you find subjects?” or “How did you blend social work and art?” and we knew we wanted to have some piece of writing for us to address those questions. Originally, we were going to write an introduction together, and I was going to commission a more traditional essay from a curator. As we were trying to write the introduction, I kept struggling with how to begin. In retrospect, I think that is because I couldn’t figure out how to write one introduction that balanced both of our voices because we come at the project from such different vantage points.
At some point, I reached out to Karen Irvine, Chief Curator and Deputy Director at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and I asked her if she would write an essay. She agreed, and we met to throw around ideas; in that meeting we decided that instead of writing about the work, it would actually make the most sense for her to conduct an interview with me and Vanessa, which would allow us to speak about the work but also preserve our individual viewpoints. I felt like this approach aligned conceptually with the rest of the book, in which you hear directly from the subjects. We chose not to include scholarly essays because we wanted the texts to be very accessible, democratic and really be about the subjects.
JR: You’ve done a few Instagram Takeovers, such as New Yorker Photo (@newyorkerphoto) and Strange Fire Collective (@strangefirecollectibve). What has your experience been with seeing the project on Instagram, a platform where people have a more interactive relationship to the work?
JTD: We were working for five years on the project, but we intentionally withheld a lot of press attention, particularly after that first 2015 New York Times article. We were waiting on the book and the show, and we wanted it to make a really big splash. I think it made an even bigger splash than we anticipated. The past two months have been pretty intense in terms of press and exposure for the project, and it went viral in a way that we couldn’t have predicted.
I did a takeover on New Yorker Photo’s Instagram feed. That was really interesting for me because I felt like it placed the work on a very mainstream level, whereas I’m used to seeing it in more of an art context. For Instagram, we condensed quotes to operate more like captions. It was great for me, career-wise, but it was also emotionally intense to see work and people you care about so deeply at the mercy of the internet, which is not the most eloquent place in our society. This exposure spread the word about the project to a lot of people, but it also resulted in some negative comments. That was challenging for me, not in terms of my own feelings being hurt, but out of protection for the subjects. When you put something on such a large platform, you’re going to get all kinds of reactions. You can’t control them, and you can’t protect the people in the work from the comments. It was difficult for me to watch at time. I checked in with the subjects, and in many cases they reminded me that they participated in the project because they wanted to share their stories and make a difference and that they could handle this media moment along with me.
JR: How do individuality and anonymity traditionally function in photography and social work, and how did you adapt those conventions for a project bridging the two fields?
JTD: As an artist, I of course respect people’s consent and make my intentions known about how the project was going to be used and where it was going to be exhibited. But, there’s no expectation in my field about anonymity, and there’s no protocol about not using people’s real names or other identifying information. In fact, in photography, it’s often the opposite. However, in social work, there are protocols for research that were put in place to protect the participants in research. There are strict rules around keeping people’s identities anonymous.
When we were making this work, Vanessa and I had a lot of conceptual conversations around this – to what extent was it really important that we were sharing peoples’ actual names, actual portraits, actual stories? How did that overlap with her practice as a social worker? At the beginning, she was viewing this as a side project; she actually didn’t anticipate writing any journal articles about it because she couldn’t see it as official research, which requires approval and follows specific guidelines. But, at some point she decided that because we had so much compelling research, all of which was original, she wanted to write about it in a scholarly context as well. For this aspect of the project, the subjects’ names and other identifying information will be removed.
In my world, including each person’s identity is an important part of the work. For our project, we used people’s real names, location, and portraits. It was essential that anyone who chose to participate in the project understood very clearly what they signed up for. We do have some rules in place to protect people’s privacy – we don’t us last names, for example – but ultimately the work depends upon people sharing their real truths and identities.
JR: What advice would you have for other photographers about how to make a dignified portrait?
JTD: I think it’s very important to be reflective about what draws you to make a portrait of someone, and to be really clear and honest both with yourself and your subjects about your intention. I think there can be kind of a sensationalizing in the art world, particularly in photography, that’s important to be conscious of so you don’t do it. I can’t make a portrait of someone unless I respect them on some level. When I’m making work, I’m not necessarily trying to make a flattering portrait, but I’m very much trying to honor the other person’s identity and dignity and present them in a way that’s complex, but also respectful.
I would advise photographers to be mindful of the formal and technical decisions they’re making and how those decisions translate conceptually and emotionally in the portrait. There were certain decisions I made while making To Survive on This Shore that were formal in nature – using a certain light condition or choosing a certain location for a portrait – that translated into how that photographs were read conceptually. One of the things that was really important in To Survive on This Shore, that I also use in most of my work, is direct eye contact from the subject to the viewer. Photography can be imbalanced in terms of the power-dynamic, and having the subjects participate fully in the making of the portrait, giving them the opportunity to present themselves to the camera and the viewer, helps to mitigate some of those power dynamics and give some of the power back to the subjects. I also think it activates the viewer in a way that’s really important: when you look at a portrait of someone and they’re looking back at you, you can’t just gaze upon them. You are activated in that relationship and in that moment, and that it forces you to think about your own identity and your own assumptions.
It’s especially important to examine your own relationships to your subjects if you are working in marginalized communities or outside of your own community. I’m not saying you can only photograph people who are the same as you, but it’s important to cross identity lines in a way that’s respectful and not exploitative.
Images courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago, unless otherwise noted.