Collection Spotlight: To Survive on This Shore by Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre

Title: To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults
Artists: Jess T. Dugan (b. 1986) and Vanessa Fabbre (b. 1978)
Nationality: American
Date: 2018
Medium: Portfolio of 12 color photograph prints on Hahnemühle Fine Art Photo Rag Pearl and 12 text panels on Canson Edition Etching Rag
Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 2019.2.1-17

To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults is a collaborative project between photographer Jess T. Dugan and professor and social worker Vanessa Fabbre, Ph.D. The portfolio presents 12  sensitive portraits of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s paired with excerpts from interviews in which they discuss their experiences.

The project developed from Dugan and Fabbre’s intersecting interests in and work with trans communities as it relates to issue of aging and self-representation.  Over a period of five years, Dugan and Fabbre traveled across the United States photographing and interviewing people from rural and urban communities and from a variety and ethnic and class backgrounds. All of the portraits were shot in or near the sitters’ homes, rather than in a studio.  The settings for each photograph were chosen in collaboration with the sitters, and function as extensions of their representations.


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Details from To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults

Dugan and Fabbre’s intent was to present a portrait of a population that is often overlooked in media representation, and to preserve the stories of these individuals who paved the way for the current generation. Dugan has stated she had a growing “…awareness that younger trans people don’t have lot of images of older trans people to look to for validation.” She explained:

So many trans-related stories in the media are about people being murdered or are about discrimination of some kind. With this project, I wanted to create representations of many different ways of living and aging as a trans person. 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 of forgotten, and I wanted to record and preserve them.

Fabbre, for her part, was inspired by the potential for art to reach a broader audience than academic outlets. She has stated that “part of the inspiration for this project also came from thinking about the limits of knowledge dissemination in the social sciences, especially in terms of our ability to engage in broader cultural forces and public discourse. I saw the potential to make an impact beyond academia by creating this project together.”

The portfolio was developed specifically so that it could be used by university art museums as an aide in teaching. The texts that accompany each photograph represent small excerpts from the interviews that Fabbre conducted. Dugan and Fabbre are working to have the full interview transcripts preserved in archives in the U.S. and Canada.

Jess T. Dugan’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts Boston; among others. In 2015, Dugan was the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and was selected by the Obama White House as a LGBT artist Champion of Change. In 2019, she received the prestigious Emerging Photographer Award from the International Center of Photography, New York.

Vanessa Fabbre is currently Assistant Professor, The Brown School, Washington University, in St. Louis, MO, where she is also Affiliate Faculty in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and a Faculty Scholar in the Institute for Public Health.

Selections from To Survive on This Shore will be featured in the Block’s Fall 2020 exhibition Thinking About History.

Written by Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

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