Identity and social connection are driving forces in my life and work, and I have long been drawn to making photographic portraits in pursuit of a deeper understanding of these human experiences. Over the past decade, my photographs have explored issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and community, shifting between an internally focused, subjective examination of myself and an outwardly focused, socially and politically motivated documentation of the LGBTQ community. These perspectives are inextricably linked; my personal identity as a queer person is inherently political, and the open portrayal of my body, experiences, and family creates a platform from which I can intimately engage with others.
Although my investigation surrounding identity was born out of personal experience, my focus has continually expanded outward, centering around the process through which we each come to know our authentic selves and the difficulties that arise when we assert those selves within constraining environments.
Formally, I use medium and large-format cameras, natural light, and a slow working method to combine a traditional style of photographing with contemporary subject matter. My work does not attempt to provide definitive answers; rather, it invites viewers to engage with others in an intimate, meaningful way, requiring them to reflect on their own identities in the process.
Every Breath We Drew
Every Breath We Drew explores the power of identity, desire, and connection through portraits of myself and others. Working within the framework of queer experience and from my actively constructed sense of masculinity, my portraits examine the intersection between private, individual identity and the search for intimate connection with others. I photograph people in their homes and personal spaces, using medium and large format cameras to create a deep, sustained engagement, resulting in an intimate and detailed portrait.
I combine portraits of individuals, couples, and self-portraits to investigate broader themes of identity and connection while also speaking to my personal experience. The photographs of men and masculine individuals act as a kind of mirror; they depict the type of gentle masculinity I am attracted to, and also the kind I want to embody. Similarly, the photographs of relationships speak to a drive to be seen, understood, and desired through the eyes of another person; a reflection of the self as the ultimate intimate connection.
Rather than attempting to describe a specific identity or group- the gender identity and sexual orientation of the individuals varies greatly- Every Breath We Drew asks larger questions about how identity is formed, desire is expressed, and intimate connection is sought.
Representations of older transgender people are nearly absent from our culture and within artistic realms, and those that do exist are often one-dimensional. To Survive on this Shore combines photographs of transgender and gender non-conforming people over the age of fifty with interviews about their life experiences in regard to gender, identity, age, and sexuality and provides a nuanced view into the complexities of aging as a transgender person. This interdisciplinary project is a collaboration between Jess T. Dugan, photographer, and Vanessa Fabbre, PhD, LCSW, a social worker and Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, whose research focuses on the intersection of LGBTQ issues and aging.
Since 2013, we have photographed and interviewed over 80 people throughout the United States. We intentionally seek out subjects whose lived experiences exist within the complex intersections of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and geographic location. Each story exemplifies both struggle and joy, often complementary aspects of the same experience. Ultimately, it is our intention to provide visibility to a community that is often overlooked, both because of their age as well as their gender, and to encourage empathy, understanding, and dialogue.
The full project can be viewed at www.tosurviveonthisshore.com.
To Survive on
In our society, it is assumed that there are only two genders, both of which come with very specific expectations and roles. I aim to challenge that assumption by portraying people whose identity falls outside of these preconceived notions. Transcendence is a collection of portraits within the transgender and gender-variant community. These photographs show that there are an endless number of gender identities, specific to each person, while illustrating that gender identity and biological sex are two distinct constructs. More broadly, they call into question societal expectations about gender roles and how these expectations affect everyone, including those who are not a part of the transgender community.
Through sharing individual experiences, this work honestly and openly portrays a community that is often overlooked, fetishized, or misrepresented. It raises a dialogue about the fluidity of gender and the ways in which our current societal structure does not allow for variations outside of the mainstream. In an effort to increase understanding, these images portray issues unique to the transgender community while also highlighting the shared experience of being human.
I had chest reconstruction surgery on January 5, 2005 at the age of 18. Two weeks later, the first time I could physically handle my 4 x 5 view camera, I made a picture of my mother and I standing topless next to each other. In this photo, the bruises on my skin are still visible and surgical strips hold together the incision that would become my scars. My mother stands next to me, exposing not only her own body, but also her unwavering support of me and mine.
In 2010, I once again asked my mother to stand next to me, to re-create the original image, but this time in color. She agreed, and since then, we have been photographing ourselves together in the same pose every year. I am interested in how our bodies have changed, and will continue to change, year after year. We are both aging; my hair is greying; I have added, and sometimes removed, tattoos and piercings. We plan to continue making these photographs together every year, for as long as we can.
In addition to these annual photographs, I continue to make individual portraits of my mother, documenting our relationship over time and engaging with larger ideas surrounding family and identity.
Pictures with my Mother
Coupled is a series of twenty large-format Polaroid photographs of queer couples, taken in Boston, MA between 2006 and 2008. Every person has some connection to a female identity, whether past or present. The images are direct and posed, with the same lighting and bold, red background in each image in an attempt to direct the focus entirely onto the subject. The couples are simultaneously unique and similar, becoming almost specimens of a cultural group through repetition of composition. While the images portray a specific group of people at a historic time, they also raise universal questions about attraction, love, and the nature of relationships.