When artist Jess T. Dugan crossed paths with social worker Vanessa Fabbre some time in 2012, they realised almost immediately they had a lot of overlapping interests, even though they worked in very different fields. Dugan grew up in Arkansas but moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts as a teenager – a more "progressive environment" that was important for her process of coming out as queer and gender nonconforming. "It also facilitated my discovery of photography and art," she says, "and a lot of my work explored issues of identity, gender and sexuality, often focusing specifically on the LGBTQ community and even more specifically on the transgender community." Fabbre, meanwhile, spent her early years in St. Louis, Missouri attending a Catholic high school, and didn’t feel too tuned in to her own identity as a queer person until later in life. "I went to graduate school for social work in Chicago," Fabbre says. "That environment impacted my awareness of queer and trans issues as well as my involvement in social justice work. I also do qualitative research, often through interviews, but had never worked on an art project before." As each of them had been working within trans communities for many years, albeit in different capacities, collaboration on a new project felt natural. "I had never focused specifically on ageing or older adults, and Vanessa had never worked with photography," Dugan says. "We combined the ageing component from her work with the photographic component from mine." The resulting project, To Survive on This Shore, is an expansive coast-to-coast chronicle of the lived experiences of older transgender adults living in the US, shot between 2013 and 2018.
A real emotional investment goes into undertaking socially engaged work, and both Dugan and Fabbre say they felt incredibly touched by the intentionality and generosity of the participants in the project. "Many times, we showed up as strangers but were nonetheless welcomed into people’s homes and told intimate stories about their lives. The process of interviewing and photographing each person was often emotionally intense, and we have stayed in close touch with many of the participants." When it came to taking the photographs and conducting the interviews, Dugan and Fabbre preferred a gradual, more considered engagement with their subjects. Dugan says it was important to go to each person’s home or personal space and create the portrait together in a place that was meaningful to them. "My method of working is slow; I use natural light, which requires slow shutter speeds and the use of a tripod, and I work collaboratively with my subjects, often spending multiple hours making a portrait. Ultimately, I strive to create an image that is responsive to the subject’s authentic sense of self while also reflecting my own sensibilities as an artist."
"In terms of representation, we think it’s important to resist the urge to reduce a group of people to a few characteristics or issues – trans people are diverse in every way and representations should reflect this diversity." Before being able to tackle the issue of how our societies fall short in adequately representing trans and gender nonconforming experiences, though, Fabbre says we really have to address the broader social norms and policies that continue to make life hard for these people. "This means intervening in educational systems to support young people, confronting employment discrimination, and improving access to affirming healthcare," she says.
Dugan and Fabbre hope that the project’s legacy will serve as a record of transgender history in the United States, "much of which is not recorded in mainstream historical archives or books," Dugan says. They also hope that the images and stories they have collected will be helpful to younger generations of trans and gender nonconforming people as they think about their own paths, as well as facilitate more diverse understandings and representations of gender and ageing among all people. "For our work now, we both feel compelled to continue to illuminate the complexity and nuance within people’s lives, especially if they have been stigmatised or marginalised in some way. And we hope that commitment shows up in our future respective work."
Here, Dugan and Fabbre share portraits and words from 12 of the 88 people they connected with along the way.