Walking through the Rubenstein Library gallery, one can’t help but be drawn to the photographic portraits now lining the walls, its subjects staring directly out at the viewer as though asking them to approach.
The new exhibit, “To Survive on This Shore,” is the work of photographer Jess Dugan and her partner, social worker Vanessa Fabbre. On display until June 2, the collection documents the histories of older transgender and gender non-conforming people from across the United States. It also makes a concerted effort to create a space that encompasses the whole humanity of its subjects. Having her collaborators look right at the viewer is one way Dugan hopes to empower them, as it places the viewer-viewed relationship on the same plane.
In an artist’s talk held March 1 at the Rubenstein Arts Center, Dugan discussed the significance of the collection and the logistics involved in executing it. Dugan and Fabbre carefully coordinated their work so that it would fully acknowledge and respect the lived experiences of the subjects they captured. This care was likewise integrated into the process of interviewing and photographing the subjects and is evident in the final product.
The artists took an intersectional approach by selecting subjects who were diverse in age, race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status and geographic location, ultimately photographing 88 individuals between the ages of 50 and 90 over a five-year period. The process was slow and collaborative: Dugan and Fabbre traveled across the country and spent hours with the individual subjects in the spaces and places they called home, in an attempt to capture the person as truthfully and wholly as possible.
“So many trans-related stories in the media are about people being murdered or are about discrimination of some kind,” Dugan said in an interview with Karen Irvine, curator and associate director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, published in the hardcover photograph and interview collection “To Survive on This Shore.”
“With this project, I wanted to create representations of many different ways of living and aging as a trans person," she said. "I also wanted to record the history of people who, in many cases, paved the road for the world we live in now. I worried their stories were at risk of being lost or forgotten, and I wanted to record and preserve them.”
The artists’ deliberate approach pays off in the work itself, which is so varied in its representation that it implicitly proves the point that there is no one experience that defines what it means to be transgender or gender non-conforming. Subjects were often photographed in environments or with objects that were meaningful to them, and Dugan’s inspiration from old master portrait painting lends an air of dignity to the work — her subjects appear to be masters of themselves and their own space. Interviews are lightly edited and open-ended in a way that captures the idiosyncrasies of the subject and makes it difficult to find any sort of common thread that unites them.
“One thing that continually struck me throughout the process of making this project is the extent to which class and race affect each person’s experiences in the world, sometimes to a greater degree than their trans identity,” Dugan said. “We intentionally sought out a diverse group of subjects … When people talk about ‘the trans community’ as one cohesive group, that characterization overlooks how different each person’s experience can be depending on the other intersecting aspects of their identities.”
Certainly, the experiences are diverse in ways that are sometimes complementary and at times opposing. For example, some subjects transitioned earlier in life while others did so later: Bobbi, a proud former military man and self-proclaimed “grandfather” of the drone program, transitioned in her 70s and speaks of transitioning as a process, a “development.”
Others cannot imagine waiting so long. Trans elder and Stonewall veteran Miss Major said, “For a lot of Black transgender girls and fellows, we had to survive off of our wits. And I think we came out earlier than most of our contemporaries, not like Caitlyn Jenner at 65. I couldn’t have waited until 65 to transition. I’d be a mess.”
According to Dugan, the significance of her and Fabbre’s work is fundamentally community-centered, with the dual goal of representing trans audiences and educating non-trans people about the trans community. The subjects’ stories, of where they’ve been and where they see themselves going, provide what Dugan has called “a roadmap for aging” as a trans person. By reminding trans youth of the precedent set by the elder activists and community leaders who came before them, these photographs provide their own sort of validity and self-affirmation. They are a sign that trans kids are part of a long and storied history, that their identity never was, and never has been, a fad.
Some, like 59-year-old Jay, use their interviews partly as an opportunity to speak directly to and uplift trans young adults.
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“If you hear our story and it resonates, it is your job to keep holding the torch,” he said. “I will always be with you and watching down wherever I am. I just pray you can soak up strength and love from each other and be everything you were meant to be.”
These testimonials resonate for many trans young adults, but they also speak to later years in life spent in retrospect. The theme of aging acts as what Dugan calls a “universal entry point to the community,” and she hopes her and Fabbre’s collection will serve as a launching point for other programming related to trans issues. By displaying the collection in community spaces, collaborating with nonprofits like OpenHouse and SAGE and inviting subjects to talk about their life experiences at book signings and storytelling sessions, Dugan centers the community in an exhibit that shows trans aging “not as the end point, but the beginning of something else.”
The “To Survive on This Shore” exhibit in the Rubenstein Library Photography Gallery is co-sponsored by Archive of Documentary Arts, The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture and The Center for Documentary Studies. It will on display until June 2.