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Friday, March 31, 2023

A Brief Yet Captivating Photographer’s Look at the Representation and Power of Portraiture


Judy Woodruff: Since childhood, Jess T. Dugan has recognized the power of photography in documenting the world around him.

When they found their gender identity, they began using photographs and portraits to capture not only their own lives, but the lives of other queer people as well.

Tonight, Dugan will share his brief yet compelling look at performance and the power of portraiture.

And a note: this essay contains material for adults.

Jess T. Dugan, photographerA: I experienced many changes in my childhood. My parents divorced. We have moved home.

And for me, looking back, it is quite clear that photography has become my anchor. It became a way for me to keep what was important to me even when other things in my life were changing.

I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was made very clear from an early age that I didn’t look like what people thought a little girl should look like, or that I didn’t act like a little girl should.

So, from a very young age, I had a heightened awareness of my gender identity and self-expression. I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts when I was 13 with my mother, and this change was very important to me.

I came out as gay when I was 13 years old. Shortly thereafter, I began to think about my gender identity. And it was really great to be in a more progressive and more welcoming place.

My first experience with images of queer people, with images that validate my identity as a queer person and as a non-binary person, was in fine art photography books. Seeing someone represent someone you can connect with or who confirms your identity can be incredibly powerful. This could be a lifeline. It may confirm something about yourself that you are trying to find out or trying to understand.

So, from a very young age, I felt compelled to create images of queer people, including myself, that were as nuanced, complex, and beautiful as I knew them.

I think portraiture is especially powerful for making people feel noticed, both by the subjects and the viewers. I’m really interested in people who live authentically, and I’m especially interested in people who live authentically for them, which requires active work against society or the status quo.

I have always used my photography as a way to understand myself and my place in the world. At 18, I had breast reconstruction surgery to bring my body into line with my internal gender identity. And my mom was very supportive. She went with me to Texas, where I had an operation.

And when we got back to Boston, I took a picture of us standing next to each other, shirtless. And that was really the beginning of us filming together.

Some of my work is more personal and more subjective, but even in these works there is a political element because of who I am, because of my identity. And that’s what I’ve always accepted. I think a lot of what I do is based on the ability to allow myself to be seen and see others.

My name is Jess T. Dugan and this is my short yet compelling look at representation and the power of portraiture.

Judy Woodruff: and you can watch more short but exciting videos online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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