Jess T. Dugan

(Biloxi, Mississippi, 1986 - )

St. Louis-based artist Jess T. Dugan is best known for their color photographs exploring identity, desire, and interpersonal relationships. Drawing from their own experiences as a queer and nonbinary person, Dugan examines intersections between individual personhood and the search for connection with others. Dugan uses both medium-format and digital cameras, natural light, and a slow working method to bridge traditional photographic practices with contemporary subjects. They draw influence from portrait painting, using light, color, gesture, and pose to imbue photographs with dense emotional and psychological richness.[1]

Dugan came out as gay at age 13 and began questioning their assigned female gender identity when they were 14 or 15.[2] They recall: “The first place I found photographs of people who actually looked like me and who I could relate to was in the pages of fine art photography books. Photographic portraiture had a really profound effect on me by validating my own identity and allowing me to realize I was part of a larger community.”[3] Dugan’s subsequent work in photography has been pointedly driven by this experience, with the advancement of visual representation of queer people as a conscious and explicit goal.

In addition to photography, Dugan has also worked in video and writing. Leaning into the latter, they have described their recent book Look at me like you love me as a “visual poem,” with page spreads that juxtapose photographs and carefully set texts as long as multiple paragraphs or as short as a sentence.[4] These texts offer valuable insights into the artist’s life, experiences, and perspective. Regarding their early experiences not only looking at but also creating photographs, they write: “When I was a child, I obsessively photographed the things that were important to me. Even then, on a visceral level, I understood that everything could disappear, that I could lose the things I love at any time. Having a photograph felt like a safeguard, a way to keep it all with me no matter how turbulent and unpredictable the world became. From the very beginning, photography was my anchor. Without it, I would be lost.”[5]

Dugan describes their approach to photography as involving great patience, keen observation, and relationships that extend to either side of the camera, and they stress the sensitivity of the medium: “Photographing takes all that I have. When I am finished, I am exhausted. I look closely and intensely; I read your energy, responding to what you bring into the room, aware of what my own presence contributes. Focusing on my breath, my voice, the words I use. Looking at the details. Are you holding tension in your fingers, your forehead, your jaw? Are you able to let go of your awareness of my camera? How long will that take? Are you nervous? What are you thinking about?”[6]

Dugan also poignantly describes the experiences of transgender people, stressing aspects of both pain and joy in the process of understanding oneself: “It is not easy, being you and me. The world pushes against us, asks us to roughen the parts of us that are tender, requires us to code-switch and self-protect. We spent a lifetime learning that what we know to be true is not what others hope for. But the pull is too great, the cost of turning away too high, and so we forge ahead, shoulder the loss, embrace the growth. We find one another, somehow, and learn to name ourselves, to embody our truths and own our desires. We act as mirrors, reflect each other, see ourselves anew.” The last sentence here emphasizes the additive interplay between self-discovery and the interpersonal relationships that Dugan explores through many of their photographs. The artist elaborates: “I want to be close, but I also want to become. I want you to reflect all the parts of myself I find it difficult to name, to exist for a moment solely in the space between us. I want to see myself reflected in you.” All of this is true of the relationships that appear in Dugan’s images, and of the relationships that the artist forms with their sitters—elsewhere they have described the importance of sharing their own story: “by making myself vulnerable in that way, it opens up space for other people to share with me. That's true both of people that I photograph, and then people who ultimately see my work.”[7]

Dugan was born in Biloxi, Mississippi and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas.[8] They received their MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago (2014), their Master of Liberal Arts in Museum Studies from Harvard University (2010), and their BFA in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (2007).

Dugan’s work has been widely exhibited and is in the permanent collections of over 40 museums, including the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; the International Center of Photography; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Minneapolis Institute of Art; the St. Louis Art Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Photography; and the Library of Congress. Dugan’s monographs include Look at me like you love me (2022), To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults (2018) and Every Breath We Drew (2015).[9]


[1] “Currents 120: Jess T. Dugan,” exhibition brochure, Saint Louis Art Museum, 2021.

[2] Elyssa Goodman, “Jess T. Dugan's Moving Photos of Trans People Over 50 Enjoying Life,” VICE, 12 December 2019, https://www.vice.com/en/article/mb8zz8/jess-t-dugans-trans-photography-survive-on-this-shore.

[3] Oscar Holland, “Portraits depict ‘struggles and joys’ of older transgender people,” CNN, 22 August 2018, https://www.cnn.com/style/article/transgender-older-adults-portraits/index.html.

[4] University Galleries of Illinois State University, “Jess T. Dugan: I want you to know my story,” 17 August 2022, https://galleries.illinoisstate.edu/exhibitions/2022/jess-dugan/.

[5] Jess T. Dugan, Look at me like you love me (London: MACK, 2020), unpaginated.

[6] Dugan, Look at me like you love me, unpaginated.

[7] Paulette Beete, “The Artful Life: A Conversation with Photographer Jess T. Dugan,” National Endowment for the arts, 30 June 2022, https://www.arts.gov/stories/blog/2022/artful-life-conversation-photographer-jess-t-dugan.

[8] Beete, “A Conversation with Photographer Jess T. Dugan.”

[9] Jess T. Dugan, “Bio,” https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57bdcf91414fb59d42a23ac5/t/627bb4b4eaeb22459a5acc59/1652274356429/Dugan_Bio.pdf.


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