The Artful Life: A Conversation with Photographer Jess T. Dugan

By Paulette Beete
Two white people, one with short cropped brown hair and the other with long curly brown hair, look directly at the camera, their intertwined pose both protective and relaxed.

Shira and Sarah (from the series Every Breath We Drew)

Artist: Jess T. Dugan, born 1986

Inkjet print 2020

Collection of the artist © Jess T. Dugan

In Jess T. Dugan’s photograph Shira and Sarah (from the series Every Breath We Drew)—currently on view in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery exhibit, The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today—two people look directly at the camera, their intertwined pose both protective and relaxed. This sense of unabashed vulnerability is a hallmark of Dugan’s work, a quality they attribute to their own willingness to be vulnerable while on the other side of the lens. As Dugan explained, for them photography is about creating connection and building relationships—with others as well as oneself.

Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Dugan had some exposure to the arts, but their passion for photography really ignited while they were attending high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As they explained during our video interview, “I finally got into a photography class, and completely fell in love and started missing other classes to spend more time in the darkroom. My very first photographs were of myself and my peers in the queer community I was part of in the Boston area.” 

Since then, Dugan, who is now based in St. Louis, Missouri, has developed a thriving, independent photography practice. They primarily focus on portraits, though recent work has also explored the ways in which still life works can be read as a type of emotional portrait. As they explained, “I've always been really interested in portraiture as a way to represent identity and also as a method of activism and art making in pursuit of social change.” We spoke with them about creating an environment for vulnerability in their work, the evolution of their photography practice, and what they hope to share with viewers as a finalist of the 2022 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.

NEA: There is such a sense of openness and vulnerability in your photos. Can you talk about your process and how it helps you get to that place?

JESS T. DUGAN: I'm really in pursuit of a moment of connection between myself and the person that I'm photographing that depicts the specifics of the moment and the specifics of who they are, but also transcends it to speak about something more universal. I’m [trying to create] an emotional environment where an authentic moment of connection can happen. A lot of the people that I choose to photograph are people who I have some connection to energetically or I'm deeply interested in or want to get to know. A sense of respect and dignity is important to what I do. I trained on a 4 x 5 view camera, which has a very slow working method and requires a lot of participation from the person that you're photographing. Even though I now work digitally, my method of working was informed by that highly collaborative, very formal, very slow approach. 

To make a photograph, I'll set aside a certain amount of time with a person, usually anywhere between one and two hours. It's just me and the person I'm photographing, and it's a process of me responding to that person in terms of how they hold their body, what I'm feeling in terms of their energy, and us working together to create a photograph that is visually dynamic and also representative of who they are and the kind of exchange that we're having. I ask a lot of questions. I'll say things like, “If you were sitting here, how would you rest your arm? Or if you were standing here, what would you do with your hands? Or how would you lay on that bed?” There’s a lot of back and forth trying to find a pose or a gesture that's specific to the person that I'm photographing that is also visually interesting. 

My method of photographing hinges upon the energy that I bring to the exchange as well. I have always shared my own story in my work, and I've always made images and other pieces, like a video piece, that share my own identity and also make me vulnerable in some way. I think that by sharing my own truths, and 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. I'm also interested globally in a combination of strength and vulnerability; I'm interested in people who have found a way to fully be themselves—especially when that requires actively working against the status quo—but then still remain gentle and open and able to fully speak their truth. 

NEA: In the time you spend with your subjects, about how many photographs do you make?

DUGAN: Now that I'm photographing digitally, I make more exposures. I'll set up a photograph, and I'll make 30 or 40 exposures of the exact same thing, making small adjustments to someone's facial expression or waiting for the moment when they truly relax and are really present. It’s still a pretty intentional process of finding the photograph with that person. I almost always work with my camera on a tripod. I work with natural light; I work with slow shutter speeds. Photographers hate to hear this, but I come back to the studio and I delete about 80 percent of what I shot. I'm working my way to something, and once I get that, then I know that's the one.

Over the course of my practice as an artist, that voice inside me that knows when I've made the photograph has become much more clear and articulate. I'm really open to discovering things, but I'm also very aware when I've made something that I think is strong. I can't necessarily walk in and say, “I'm going to make this kind of image in this location and it's going to look this way.” I might start there, but then I find something through the act of photographing. As I've become more confident as a photographer, I'm much more open to trusting that I'm going to find something that I couldn’t plan. That's what continues to keep me excited. 

NEA: Can you talk about the making of your photograph Shira and Sarah?

DUGAN: Shira and Sarah is a recent image from a long-term body of work of mine called Every Breath We Drew, which I consider my ongoing soul work. The way I relate to other people, and the way I understand myself, is primarily through portraiture. I made that image during the pandemic, an interesting time for me because…I couldn't go into people's homes and photograph. I had often gone to someone's home as the first shoot we would do together or as a way to include their personal space. With Shira and Sarah, one thing I love about that piece is that the location, which is a roof deck overlooking the Mississippi River, at sunset, is one that I had to seek out of necessity because I couldn't use their home. It ended up being really exciting for me to have to break my own patterns. When I was photographing outside, I was shooting almost exclusively at sunrise and sunset because of the quality of light both visually and also emotionally. My new book is about time and making sense of one's life in terms of having a limited amount of time. The sunset images speak to that conceptually, but there’s also just beautiful light. I love the way they are holding each other. I love the shape that their arms make. I also love the tenderness in it and the way that it speaks to love and intimacy and connection and protectiveness. My work is about universal things, but it's also about queer representation. I'm really committed to that representation, and very interested in having my work bringing representations of queer identity, queer individuals, and queer couples and queer communities to the museum space. 

NEA: How do you hope viewers respond to your photos?

DUGAN: On a fundamental level, I want to facilitate an emotional exchange between the viewers of my photographs and the subjects of my photographs. What that is exactly depends on who's viewing the work and what they bring to it. I hope that my work inspires people to reflect on their own lives, and their own identities, and their own ways of being in the world and being in relationship. Because my work has elements of queer visibility and queer representation, I'm very aware that to a queer audience, it might function as a possibility model or a life-affirming representation of something that they need to see. And that can be really powerful. For people who don't identify as queer or as part of the LGBTQ community, that same work has the potential to be educational. On a core level, I'm making work to make sense of my own life and to make sense of the complicated parts of living. I hope that resonates with other people and makes space for them to think about those things in their own worlds.

NEA: What have you learned about yourself as you've been making this work?

DUGAN: My entire career has been me learning about myself through my work. I think the questions that I asked in my work have changed as I've gotten older. Some of my earlier work was exploring issues of identity in terms of discovering and owning one's gender, or one’s sexuality, and how that presents in the world. In the most recent work, I'm asking questions of identity through the lens of personhood, and what it means to live a meaningful life, what it means to be a parent, what it means to lose people that you care about, what it means to confront aging. I often learn a lot about myself from following my own intuition and then examining it critically later. Why was I interested in that at that time? What was I processing? I'm really grateful that I have a creative practice that allows me to process my life emotionally. Even when things feel very challenging or out of control, I can return to my art practice and it's my way of making sense of everything.