Jess T. Dugan: Fluid Tales of Intimacy

Image above: © Jess T. Dugan, Erica and Krista, 2012 / Courtesy of Daylight Books.


The Diane Arbus quote, “Freaks are born with their trauma” characterizes Jess. T. Dugan’s work. Proudly tattooed on the artist’s forearm, the quote signifies her and her subjects’ spirit. As the quote goes on, those who champion their identity in the face of adversity are privileged as “they have already passed their test in life”. With a whiff of righteous rebellion, Dugan tenderly portrays this triumph of nonconformity.


Image above:© Jess T. Dugan, Self-Portrait (Bath), 2012 / Courtesy of Daylight Books.


Her book, Every Breath We Drew, explores various gender identities in intimate settings. The exquisite composition of photographs such as Hunter (2011), highlight her keen eye for surroundings. The image of Hunter naked, in what appears to be a hotel room, transfixes the onlooker. His tender gaze invites us into the world of gender fluidity.

Dugan continuously produces work that celebrates her subjects’ relentless spirit to express themselves as they please. Surrounding herself with people of a variety of gender identities, her intimate portraits mirror her own identity and life. As a masculine presenting, female-bodied person, her struggles have come to shape both her identity as well as her photography. She looks beyond her subjects’ gender identities and finds herself drawn to the vulnerable spirit they have acquired in their struggle.


Images above: © Jess T. Dugan, Left- Connor, 2012, Right- Hunter, 2011 / Courtesy of Daylight Books.


Dugan’s earliest work took off as a form of self-acceptance and exploration. Her project Transcendence, made between 2005 and 2011, is a collection of humanist portraits made within the transgender and gender-variant community. In Every breath we drew, she expanded upon her exploration of gender. Men and women, both queer and straight, were included in the series as an extension of Dugan’s idea of “gentle masculinity.” Portraits of masculinity are curated along with the documentation of her personal romantic relationship. Her classic large format portraits paired with her atypical subjects reflect the softness of her affectionate images.

Intimacy underlies every narrative in the book. Her photographs are often composed inside the subjects’ bedrooms, and there is a strong sense of collaboration in each image. The subjects do more than pose; they bare their souls to Dugan’s lens. The expression of intimacy varies with each subject, but it is always raw, vulnerable, and real. It is evident that they are not just following Dugan’s direction; they are in conversation with the photographer.



Image above: © Jess T. Dugan, Laura and Aimee, 2012 / Courtesy of Daylight Books.


In Lauren and Amiee (2012), Dugan beautifully bridges her two central themes. The ambiguous caption intrigues the onlooker to further investigate this moment. However, it is not their gender that captivates us, but their sweet liaison with one another. Their gender simply adds another dimension to this relationship.

Although trans identity is a central part of her work, the various non-binary individuals she presents appear in an indefinite state. Some of them are at the start of their transition, or they identify as fluid, or simply non-binary. As she explains, gender is not stationary but continuously shifting. Photographs are captioned simply with the subjects’ first names, leaving plenty of blank space for us to fill out. In each image, there is euphoric sensation of freedom. Freedom from the construct of gender norms. Freedom from determined definitions.

Devotion-2012Image above: © Jess T. Dugan, Devotion, 2012 / Courtesy of Daylight Books.


Her carefully curated life is abstractly conveyed for our viewing pleasure. The collectable book is a warm invite into the beautiful undefined world of identity. It gives onlookers the opportunity to let go of their own ties and labels and bask in uncertainty. The book gives non-binary gendered individuals a sense of relief from the harshness of the world at large. It provides a message of hope, for those lost in the all too definite world. Most importantly, it provides us all with information that is often omitted. Accepting her invitation and delving into this magically fluid world is a trip not to be missed.


Image above: © Jess T. Dugan, Self-Portrait (Bed), 2011 / Courtesy of Daylight Books.


The coinciding exhibition Every breath we drew is currently on at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL.

by Mick Abela



LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER a lived experience