Photographer Jess T Dugan and Associate Professor Vanessa Fabbre traveled across the USA for five years to document the lives of aging trans folks.
For over five years, photographer Jess T Dugan has been working on To Survive on This Shore, a collaboration with Vanessa Fabbre, Ph.D., LCSW, a social worker and Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Dugan and Fabbre have traveled across the United States in search of trans folks whose lived experiences rest at the intersection of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and geographic location. Photographing and documenting the lives of their muses, they have developed a project which displays the vast and powerful narratives of trans experience and activism.
Christoper Harrity writing for Advocate has described Dugan's photography as "open, emotive, human and, most importantly, optimistic." "Her subjects stare through the lens, engaging directly with the photographer and viewers," he writes. "They give a little bit of themselves, sharing a glimpse of their humanity. The accompanying interviews are illuminating, providing a level of depth that a photograph alone is unable to convey." The project itself is the amalgamation of Dugan's and Fabbre's lives' work. The former has done extensive work with the LGBTQ+ community and the latter with aging and ageism.
Fabbre explained in an interview, "Early on, I wanted to challenge gerontology... One way I did that was by examining the experiences of older trans women who pursued gender transition in later life. It was through that project that I gained a better understanding of the social forces that impact aging for trans people. Around that time, I met Jess and we started talking about trans identities and aging issues within the LGBTQ community." They both knew that there exists a "fair amount of ageism and lack of awareness about aging" in the LGBTQ+ community, and in turn, in the aging world, "a fair amount of homophobia and transphobia and lack of awareness of LGBTQ issues, especially trans identities."
To Survive on This Shore, therefore, presented an opportunity to provide representation to otherwise underrepresented and largely marginalized groups. This is especially notable for the trans community; though a more recent study utilizing data from 19 states found no significant difference in age between transgender and non-transgender adults, current research also suggests increased mortality and depression in transgender individuals not receiving optimal care. The power of Dugan and Fabbre's project is thus incomparable.
"I was very conscious of how I presented each person, wanting to depict them in a dignified, but also complex, way," the photographer explained. "I made certain visual decisions that reflected my underlying conceptual choices. I didn’t want to make portraits that focused only on each person’s challenges, but I also didn’t want to make portraits that denied any sense of struggle, so I was always thinking about that balance." To Survive on This Shore is a compilation of breathing evidence for trans folks, proving that happiness, that the very simple but revolutionary act of living, is more than possible. It is riveting. Despite the insurmountable odds, there is hope. Dugan's work reminds trans folks that one day, they may look back on their lives, and remember that choosing life was worth it.