‘To Survive on This Shore’ Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre Explore the Diversity and Dignity of Transgender Experience
Like many markers of identity circumscribed by society, gender is one it is easy to take for granted as immutable, inherent, or natural. Artist Jess T. Dugan and social worker Vanessa Fabbre’s new project, “To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults,” opening at St. Louis’ projects+gallery on September 6th, combats those hasty—and harmful—presumptions. Across a series of photographic portraits made by Dugan in tandem with interviews conducted by Vanessa Fabbre, Assistant Professor at the Brown School at Washington University (Dugan and Fabbre are also life partners), the exhibit honors the sheer diversity and humanity of the trans community. The individuals on view blur the lines between femme, butch, tough, and soft, compelling viewers to reconsider just what it meant by these terms in the first place, and whose experience is valued (or devalued) in the process.
Earning an MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago and a Master of Liberal Arts in Museum Studies from Harvard, Dugan has been featured at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and the San Diego Museum of Art, among other venues. While portions of her latest series have been exhibited in Chicago and in Switzerland, “To Survive This Shore” is the inaugural show for the project, doubling as a book launch for the volume of photography and interviews created by Dugan and Fabbre.
We spoke with Dugan about the process and goals of this ongoing project.
What does it mean to show this work to a broader, less academic audience?
When Vanessa and I created this work, we had several audiences in mind. One was the trans community itself, and we wanted to create representations that were validating for both younger and older members. We also wanted to reach an audience who had never been introduced to this community and possibly never thought about aging as a transgender person or the issues that come up with aging as an LGTBQ person more broadly. We definitely want a wide array of audiences to see the show. From the beginning, the project had an educational mission and an activist mission, as well.
Because we’re based in St. Louis, it’s exciting to have the first solo show and book launch here. We’re working with projects+ to travel the show, so hopefully it will go far and wide after its run in St. Louis. While we spent five years going all over the United States for our subjects, there were also local participants, which is exciting as well.
“To Survive in This Shore” is certainly shore-to-shore in a lot of ways. How did you go about selecting subjects to photograph?
It was really important to include a diverse group of people—in terms of age, race, ethnicity, gender expression, socioeconomic class, geographic location and life narratives. That’s part of what led us all over the country—East Coast, West Coast, the South, the Midwest, small towns, big cities; a wide variety of places.
The earliest subjects, who we photographed in 2013, were people that Vanessa and I had known from our previous work—for me as a photographer, and for her as a social worker. We began with people that we knew, and word spread outward. Over about a two-year period, we generated about 25 photographs and interviews. In early 2015, I created a website. We were featured in The New York Times and seven or eight other places in quick succession. I received more than one hundred emails from people all over the country wanting to participate. As I would travel for work, I would slowly reach out to them, visit them in their town, and do portraits that way. We also went to several transgender conferences—one in Philadelphia, one in Seattle. We sought out people well-known within the community as trans elders or activists to include in the project.
Over a four-year period, with each person we photographed and interviewed, the trust within the community increased. Person-to-person networking was very important, too. We ultimately photographed and interviewed 86 people, 65 of which are in the book, and 22 who are featured at projects+gallery. We could have made a thousand portraits—easily. We could have kept going and going. We have partnered with several archives to preserve the full interview transcriptions, so that they will be available for the future. Vanessa is also pulling from the interviews to write some scholarly articles—an academic component separate from the art aspect.
How do you go about capturing the essence of subjects who were often so new to you? They clearly seem to trust you, and one can see that in how they approach the lens, especially as so many stare right at the camera.
Because I was seeking out people based on their identity, I had often never met them prior to showing up at their house to make the their portrait. A few things were important to the subjects trusting me and welcoming me into their homes: over time, I had built a reputation in the community as someone respectful and making a serious project, and also the fact that I’m more broadly a part of the LGBTQ community.
We would always conduct the interview first. Conducting the interview first was an important part of me getting to know the subject and them getting to know me. I was always struck by how open people were willing to be during this process. People were willing to share some of the most difficult and joyful parts of their life—which created this incredible sense of intimacy in a short amount of time. After the interview, we would create the portrait together.
I work collaboratively with my subjects, and I work very slowly with my equipment. I trained on a large format film camera, which I used for 10 years. I photograph digitally now but still work in a similar fashion. My camera is always on a tripod; I use natural light and slow shutter speed. There’s a lot of back and forth between me and the subject—what kind of location is meaningful to them, what kind of pose feels comfortable. I feel that this way of working allows people to really present themselves to the camera and create the portrait together. Meeting people in their homes also created a kind of intimacy and comfort and allowed us to spend the day together while creating these portraits.
“To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults” opens at projects+gallery in St. Louis on Sept. 6. The exhibition will show until Oct. 10. Special events are listed below, and more information can be found at projects-gallery.com.
Opening Reception, Sept. 13, 5:00-8:00 p.m.
Artist Talk with Jess Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre, Sept. 15 at 11:00 a.m.
Storytelling with PROMO and Metro trans Umbrella Group, Sept. 21, 6:00-8:00 p.m.
Contemporary Art Museum Open Studios, Oct. 7, 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
projects+gallery will be offering signed copies of the catalogue.
Top image “Caprice, 55, Chicago, IL, 2015” courtesy of projects+gallery and Jess T. Dugan.