Female in Focus: Jess T. Dugan’s empowering portraits of the ageing transgender community

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When photographer Jess T. Dugan was 13, she started to question her identity. Over the next few years, she came out as queer – a process which, at the time, was isolating; there was nothing in the mainstream media that reflected her experience. In fact, she had never seen an image of a queer or gender nonconforming person at all, until she stumbled across one in a photography book – a discovery she describes as having a profound influence on her.

We spoke to Dugan, who identifies as non-binary (but uses the female pronoun), in light of Female in Focus, a new award seeking to elevate exceptional work by female and non-binary photographers. Our aim is to take steps towards a more diverse and inclusive photography industry. Dugan’s work, which focuses on the untold stories of marginalised groups, encompasses the values at the heart of Female in Focus.

© Jess T. Dugan, from the series Every Breath We Drew

“I think that representation – and seeing oneself represented in the larger culture – is incredibly important,” says Dugan. “Images can function as possibility models, validating an internal identity while also connecting the viewer to a larger community.”

Dugan has dedicated her career to providing these “possibility models” to others. Her photographs explore a broad and nuanced array of queer experiences, creating a deeper LGBTQ narrative than that available in the mainstream media. Though more and more queer stories are being told, they tend to be narrow and reductive – especially when it comes to transgender people. Caitlyn Jenner may be a household name, but is there a single other transgender person over 50 in the public eye?

Dugan and her partner, writer Vanessa Fabbre, set out to correct this, with their project To Survive on this Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Nonconforming Older Adults. They spent five years travelling the US seeking out subjects from this ultra-marginalised group.

“We had heard from younger transgender people that they had never seen images of transgender older adults and they lacked a roadmap for what their life might look like as they aged,” says Dugan. “We were aware that, in many cases, transgender older adults were directly responsible for the progress around gender and sexuality that we benefit from today. We wanted to record and preserve that history before it was too late.”

Throughout the series, most subjects are shown in their homes, gazing frankly at the camera. One arresting portrait shows 63-year-old Helena in a sunlit garden. She looks graceful and strong, but her expression is weary, and in the accompanying interview she describes her lonely past. She has yet to find the “feeling of being embraced” that she craves, but she maintains faith in the power of helping others: “Every day I try to do one thing for someone else, that I don’t necessarily know. That helps me not feel isolated.”

© Jess T. Dugan

Dugan describes identity and social connection as the “driving forces” of her work, and uses art to break down barriers and forge human understanding. “My work does not attempt to provide definitive answers,” she says, “rather, it invites viewers to engage with others in an intimate, meaningful way. I hope that my photographs both validate those within queer communities and educate those who are not LGBTQ, or who may be unfamiliar with LGBTQ people.”

Giving a platform to one of society’s most marginalised groups is deeply political work, and the political is often rooted in the personal. Dugan is not afraid to turn the camera on herself, in order to interrogate her own identity: “the open portrayal of my body, experiences, and family creates a platform from which I can intimately engage with others.”

© Jess T. Dugan, from the series Every Breath We Drew

Her ongoing series ‘Pictures with My Mother’ sees Dugan and her mother captured in quiet, domestic moments, such as sitting in the bath or getting dressed. In one repeated pose, mother and daughter stand topless, side by side, echoing an earlier portrait taken just after Dugan’s chest reconstruction surgery. The work is disarmingly intimate; there are no barriers between Dugan and the viewer – she lets us in, completely. Dugan describes her working style as slow and collaborative, and the result is portraits that capture individuals and couples in their most private moments. They are dignified, celebratory, and empowering.

Dugan may have found a platform, but, she says, the photography industry still has work to do. “More opportunities need to be made available to women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color,” she says. “There is no lack of talented and capable photographers within these groups, but many assignments, exhibition and publication opportunities, and awards are still given to a relatively homogenous group of people.”  

So, what is the way forward? “We need editors, galleries, museum curators, and other industry professionals to be intentional about the people they choose to work with and to build diversity into the foundation of their work.” Female in Focus is our way of doing exactly that. The award’s aim is to give a platform to new perspectives, and to empower women and non-binary photographers to step behind the lens. The industry has come a long way since Dugan was a 13 year old, searching for pictures of people like herself – with awards like Female in Focus, we hope it will keep going in the right direction.

Female in Focus is calling for exceptional photography by women. Want to win a group show at United Photo Industries Gallery, New York? Apply today!

© Jess T. Dugan
© Jess T. Dugan, from the series Every Breath We Drew