To Survive on This Shore spotlights transgender and gender nonconforming older adults through portraiture and interviews
Currently showing at Minneapolis Institute of Art until 25 April, Jess T Dugan’s intimate project is built on trust and collaboration.
- Jyni Ong
- 1 March 2021
For over five years, photographer Jess T Dugan and social worker Vanessa Fabbre have traveled across the United States to document a group who are rarely represented in the mainstream; older trans people. From coast to coast, the project, titled To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults, shines a light on the people who have often been left out of the conversation when it comes to queer identity. The extensive project, also published in a recent book of the same title, features photographs and interviews with the subjects. In turn, the title explores issues of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class and geographic location.
Jess is an American artist known for examining identity through portraiture. Their work has been collected by over 35 museums, including the prestigious Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Houston, and the International Centre of Photography; just to name a few. In the instance of To Survive on This Shore, Jess offers a nuanced perspective of the experiences of an older transgender person, reflecting on what it means to live authentically to oneself in spite of incredible challenges.
The artist’s work centres on respect and consent. They tell us on their highly considered process: “I work slowly and collaboratively with my camera on a tripod, using natural light and slow shutter speeds.” In Jess’ work, it is paramount that the subject participates fully in the project and feels wholly respected and validated in the process. This approach extends beyond the photoshoot, and Jess sends each person prints of the final photograph and keeps in touch, establishing a relationship of trust and attentiveness which is imbued throughout the work. The subjects are also included as much as possible in the offshoots of the project. In this case, they featured as many participants as possible in panel discussions, book releases, lectures, exhibitions and so forth.
Jess and Vanessa met the project’s participants in a number of ways. Word of mouth was key of course, but the pair also took part in media outreach, presented at several transgender and LGBTQIA+ conferences, and collaborated with non-profit organisations too. In addition to this, the artist also wanted to include a few specific people to credit their activist roles in the community. In short, though it was a mammoth project featuring 88 individuals (just a small fraction of the people who wanted to be included), Jess explains on the overwhelming experience working on the project: “Having the opportunity to meet and spend time with so many amazing people was definitely a highlight. I was humbled and inspired by the openness and generosity of each person.”
Peppered with social and political advocations, To Survive on This Shore is intended for education and advocacy as well as to increase representation. For many of the participants, they took part in the project to share their stories and help those experiencing similar feelings later on, with the hopes of easing their path along the way. Though Jess didn’t know the vast majority of people who took part in the project, there were a couple of exceptions. Jess knew two subjects, Samm and Hank from their childhood, for instance. Having grown up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Samm led a lesbian bible study group that Jess and their mum frequented. “I originally met them when I was 10 or 11,” the photographer adds, “and I have fond memories of hanging out at their house a few hours a week playing with their Boston terriers.”
Fast forwarding a couple decades later to when Jess started to plan To Survive on This Shore, they reached out to Samm and Hank to see if they would like to participate. Jess didn’t know how they self-identified, but upon reaching out, to Jess’ delight, they were up for it. Jess and Vanessa then journeyed to spend the day with them, which turned out to be “one of the most moving interviews we conducted, as they both shared incredibly personal, and often difficult, stories about their lives.” For Jess, the generational differences were starkly apparent in this interview, as Jess identifies as queer and non-binary like Hank, but their experiences of this identity have contrasted greatly due to the fact Hank is 47 years older than Jess. “I am keenly aware that I have been able to live my life more fully and openly because of the work of people like Hank,” the photographer reflects.
The portrait of Samm and Hank bears great significance for Jess. One particular memory that comes to mind from the portrait is the “incredibly intimate and very moving” conversation they had towards the end of their day together. Samm and Hank had breast cancer later in life, resulting in double mastectomies; “they were excited about their flat chests,” recalls Jess. And, at the end of a cherished day together, “we all shared our chest surgery scars and spoke about our experiences with surgery and our bodies.”
Jess T Dugan: To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults, Dee Dee Ngozi, 55, Atlanta, GA, 2016 (Copyright © Jess T Dugan, 2016)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.