There’s something really powerful about portraits, especially when the subject is staring right back at you.
And even more so when that subject is “rarely visualized,” to use the words of photographer Jess T. Dugan. Starting in the fall of 2013, Dugan traveled the country taking photos of a group of people she says deserve to be seen more often: transgender and gender variant people over the age of 50.
Dugan’s work—a collaboration with Vanessa Fabbre, a scholar and professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis—comes as older trans people are just barely beginning to break through into mainstream culture. Even though over half of the trans population in the U.S. is over the age of 50, it wasn’t until last month that Jeffrey Tambor, 70, won a Golden Globe for playing a father transitioning of as a woman in the Amazon series “Transparent.”
Fusion spoke with Dugan about the project, titled “To survive on this shore,” and what the trans community’s elders have to teach young people.
Fusion: Why did you choose to focus on photographing transgender people over 50?
Dugan: Our culture values youth, but especially within the trans community, there is incredible strength, inspiration, and history in the stories of our elders. I wanted to make portraits of older transgender and gender variant people, a group of people rarely visualized, in order to share their stories and encourage dialogue and understanding.
I also wanted to record an important part of transgender history that might otherwise get lost.
Your subjects make direct eye contact with the viewer. Why did you choose to take your portraits in this style?
There is incredible power in making oneself visible, allowing others to look at you, and being confident in that gaze. By asking my subjects to look directly at the camera, I am facilitating a meaningful interaction between them and the viewer, who no longer has the option of gazing upon someone as an outsider. Instead, they are implicated in a relationship, in a moment, and they are forced to engage in a personal way.
Photography also has a complicated relationship with power and representation, and it is often used in ways that are harmful or exploitative. By having my subjects gaze confidently out of the frame, it gives some of that power back to them and makes it clear that they have chosen to present themselves to me, and by extension, to the viewer.
Louis, 54, Springfield, Mass
You partnered with a social worker. Tell me more about this unexpected partnership.
When I first met Vanessa, who is now my partner in life as well as my collaborator on this project, we were amazed at how much our work overlapped. Seemingly different on the surface, we shared similar concerns about identity, representation, and social justice. Vanessa’s research focuses on the intersection of LGBTQ issues and aging, and her dissertation, “Gender Transitions in Later Life,” focused on people who transition over the age of 50.
Vanessa conducts and edits the interviews and I make the portraits. The stories add so much to the understanding of each person and really take the project to a deeper, more meaningful level.
Alexis, 64, Chicago, Ill.
You also focus on intersectionality: people who are trans and working-class, trans and black, or trans and working in a high-level government job, for example. Was intersectionality important to this project?
From the very beginning, we were committed to including subjects whose lived experiences exist within the complex intersections of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and geographic location. All of these identities are so integral to a person’s identity and life experience – it’s almost impossible to speak about gender identity without talking about the others. Ultimately, we want to include as many diverse narratives as possible and make sure we do justice to the community we are working within.
Tasha, 65, Birmingham, Ala.
What’s next for you?
We are currently seeking funding to allow us to travel and continue working on this project. We have received interest from people all over the country, but we need the financial means to get to them.
I am also working on my first book, “Every breath we drew,” which will be released by Daylight Books this fall. I currently have a Kickstarter campaign (closing March 18) to raise the funds needed to publish it. The book is available along with other rewards such as postcards and prints [on Kickstarter]. Every pledge is greatly appreciated!
Bobbi, 83, Detroit, Mich.
“I was the “grandfather”, or whatever you’d call it – of the drone program. I mean, I played golf with presidents, with Jerry Ford and whatnot, and I certainly have met the older Bush and younger Bush and Reagan a couple of times. I’ve been in the White House. I’ve been up and down the Pentagon, all levels. And I’ve also worked extensively with the CIA.”
“I think people talk in either/or terms, right? Before transition and after…but to me it’s really development. I feel it’s been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person. I’m proud of both lives. I’m proud of both me’s, if you see what I’m saying.”