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In an exploration of identity, gender and community, Jess T. Dugan, a St. Louis–based artist, uses photography to capture the intersection between individual identities and the search for intimate connections with others. She first turned to photography as a tool to explore the process of transitioning around the time she underwent her first reconstruction chest surgery at age 18. “I began documenting my own experiences and body, and shared my personal story as a launching pad to photograph other people,” Dugan says.
The artist is shining a spotlight on many issues that members of the transgender community struggle with in private in order to start a dialogue and to encourage empathy. Dugan’s subjects include couples, individuals and, sometimes, herself; she photographs people in their own bedrooms, using medium- and large-format cameras to create depth of field and make viewers feel like they are in the room to better engage them in the process.
In one series, Dugan and her mother posed side by side, naked from the waist up. The photos, which were taken after Dugan’s chest surgery, capture something more intimate than their bodies — the mother-daughter bond. One photo is of Dugan resting her head in her mother’s lap; in another, the two look at their faces in the mirror.
“My work swings between very personal and subjective about my own life and looking outward at others’ lives,” Dugan says.
I work to create an environment of collaboration and trust, and try to set the emotional tone to draw out my subjects’ real identities.
Jess T. Dugan
When Dugan is working with her subjects, she spends hours — even days — getting to know them so that she can draw out their authenticity before snapping a photo.
“I work to create an environment of collaboration and trust, and try to set the emotional tone to draw out my subjects’ real identities,” she explains. Her series Every Breath We Drew captures subjects — male and female — who redefine the idea of masculinity. In another series, To Survive on this Shore, Dugan peeks into the everyday lives of transgender people over the age of 50, whom Dugan describes as “nearly absent from our culture.”
Dugan is working on a book, to be published in the fall of 2018, that includes many of these photos and examines aging in the LGBT community. Dugan’s photographs are also on display in the JPMorgan Chase virtual art exhibition, along with 600 works by artists who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, as part of Pride Month.
The exhibit includes a range of artwork by members of the LGBT community, including Andy Warhol, Arturo Herrera, Dorothée Smith, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Robert Rauschenberg and Joey Kirkpatrick, among others. Dugan’s work has also been exhibited at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the San Diego Museum of Art.
“I’ve found that sharing my own story and truth is a really powerful way to break down assumptions that people have about gender and sexuality and stereotypes of the LGBT community,” Dugan says. Her goal is for people who look at her work to feel as though they know the subjects personally.
“Through the power of photography as a storytelling device, I can encourage dialogue and empathy,” she says.