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A Conversation with Jess T. Dugan, the photographer showing the new face of queer identity

Laurel_2014
Laurel_2014
Laurel. (2014). Photo courtesy Jess T. Dugan.

To see the new face of queer identity, look to photographer Jess T. Dugan’s work, whose portraiture captures many different aspects of the LGBTQ community including gender variance, representations of masculinity and transgender issues. Two recent bodies of work have been featured in publications across the country. Every breath we drew examines masculinity in queer communities; To survive on this shore documents aging transgender Americans. Dugan’s photography captures the life experience and true stories of marginalized and often forgotten segments of society. Her photography gives viewers the chance to see and understand queerness.

ArtsATL: Photographers use many different elements to create interest and meaning — whether it is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment or the symbols/icons of Cindy Sherman. What makes a Jess T. Dugan photo? 

Jess T. Dugan
Jess T. Dugan

Jess T. Dugan: When I am making a portrait, I am always seeking a meaningful connection with my subject. I photograph slowly and intentionally, creating circumstances that allow for a meaningful exchange that transcends the specifics of that specific moment and encounter.

Formally, I am drawn to beautiful light and color; I always photograph using natural light, and I pay careful attention to how light falls on a particular person or place. I am inspired by painters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio and find power in fusing a traditional approach to portraiture with a very contemporary subject.  

ArtsATL: How do you see our perception of gender and sexuality changing in coming generations? Do you think your photography documents a pivotal moment for queer people?  

Dugan: I think our understanding of gender and sexuality has to become more expansive and fluid. We are experiencing a pivotal moment for the LGBTQ community as a whole, but especially for those within transgender and gender-variant communities. We now have mainstream visibility in an unprecedented way, but with this visibility comes questions about who is being represented and whose stories are being told.  Much of our community is being left out of the conversation and many transgender people are still experiencing violence, employment and housing discrimination and other struggles that are severe and urgent. I believe we have come a long way — evidenced by the stories of the transgender elders I have been fortunate enough to interview — but we have a long way to go.  

"Dallas lying on the bed" (2012). Photo courtesy Jess T. Dugan.
Dallas lying on the bed (2012). Photo courtesy Jess T. Dugan.

ArtsATL: Which expressions of masculinity are you most interested in capturing? There are many ways to display masculinity — tattoos, rough skin, cars and flannel, etc. — what do you gravitate towards as a photographer?

Dugan: My interest in masculinity comes from my experience defining my own masculinity as a female-bodied, masculine-presenting person. When I was coming of age, I spent a long time figuring out where I felt at home in terms of my gender and what aspects of masculinity, or femininity, felt right to me.  

While making my series Every breath we drew, I was drawn to people who possessed a gentle kind of masculinity, especially those who had defined their identities for themselves, often against traditional expectations. There are several self-portraits in the series, but in some ways, I think of the project as a whole as a large self-portrait. I was drawn to people who embodied qualities I either saw in my self or qualities I desired to have.  

ArtsATL: One of the recurring themes in today’s art world is artists engaging with the public. We no longer are cloistered savants issuing work to the world, but instigators using our vision to move people. How does your artistic practice engage audiences, inspire people and create change?

Dugan: By its very nature, my work requires that I engage with other people.  I would not be able to make the work that I do without the full participation and consent of the people I photograph. Especially because I work within marginalized communities, my work depends on a sense of trust, built through one-on-one relationships and accumulated over time.

Beyond that, I believe very strongly in the power of representation to validate identity, encourage dialogue and inspire social change. I first discovered the power of photography as a young person, flipping through books in the basement of the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and finding images by Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Carrie Mae Weems and other artists whose politically engaged works reflected my own identity and inspired much of my artistic path. As a young queer person, I hadn’t seen myself represented anywhere else; photography became not only a vehicle through which I could understand the world and my place within it, but it also validated my identity in a way that nothing else ever had.  

"Ryan and Josh" (2013). Photo courtesy Jess T. Dugan.
Ryan and Josh (2013). Photo courtesy Jess T. Dugan.

ArtsATL: How do you create a narrative in your photography? It looks like each subject you capture has a lifetime of experiences and stories in their soul. How do you bring that out in your photographs? 

Dugan: It begins with who I choose to photograph. I have a kind of respect, or reverence, for every person I photograph. When I’m making a portrait, I try to create the kind of emotional environment that allows for both myself and my subject to fully present with one another and to make something together that is intimate and honest. After each photo shoot, I feel incredibly humbled to have been allowed into someone’s life — and often into their home — in order to make their portrait. Photographing allows me to spend time with people, to have meaningful conversations, and to really slow down and look. I actually find it very spiritual.  

It has always been my intention as a photographer to find the profound in the everyday; many of my photographs are made within my own community or about my own experience. I hope to create a moment of connection between the viewer and the subject, allowing an exchange to take place that might not happen otherwise.

ArtsATL: What, in particular, would you like to see your work do for the public? Is it knowledge? Social change? Conversation? What do you hope your photography instigates? 

Dugan: In my photographs, I try to tell the stories of specific individuals with specific histories and experiences while also tapping into our shared humanity. I believe very strongly that when you truly know someone, when you sit down and hear their story, it leads to understanding and empathy. It’s much more difficult to discriminate against a group of people based on their gender or sexuality when you know them as individuals and can empathize with who they are and what they have been through.

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Dugan will speak at Georgia State University on February 10, 2016, 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Troy Moore Library, Room 2343, 25 Park Place, Atlanta, GA 30303.

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