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A photographer’s Brief But Spectacular take on representation and the power of portraiture

Transcript

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

As they grew into their gender identity, they began using photography and portraits to capture not only their own life, but the lives of other queer people.

Tonight, Dugan shares their Brief But Spectacular take on representation and the power of portraiture.

And a note: This essay contains mature content.

Jess T. Dugan, Photographer: I experienced a lot of change as a young child. My parents got divorced. We moved homes.

And, for me, looking back, it's very clear that photography became my anchor. It became the way that I could hold onto the things that were important to me, even as other things in my life were changing.

I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was made very clear to me from an early age that I didn't look like what people thought a little girl was supposed to look like, or I didn't behave the way a little girl was supposed to behave.

And so, from a very early age, I had a heightened awareness around my own gender identity and expression. I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I was 13, with my mom, and that shift was really significant for me.

I came out as gay when I was 13. I started thinking about my gender identity shortly thereafter. And it was really wonderful to be in a place that was more progressive and was more accepting.

My first experiences with images of queer people, with images that validated my identity as a queer person and as a nonbinary person, was in fine art photography books. Seeing someone represented who you can relate to or who validates your identity can be incredibly powerful. It can be a lifeline. It can affirm something about yourself that you're trying to figure out or try trying to understand.

And so, from a very young age, I felt compelled to make images of queer people, including myself, that were as nuanced and complex and beautiful as I knew these individuals to be.

I think portraiture is especially powerful for making people feel seen, both the subjects and the viewers. I'm really interested in people who are living authentically, and I'm especially interested in that when living authentically for them requires actively working against society or the status quo.

I have always used my photography as way to understand myself and my place in the world. I had chest reconstruction surgery when I was 18 to more closely align my body with my internal gender identity. And my mom was very supportive of that. She came with me to Texas, where I had my surgery.

And when we got back to Boston, I made a photograph of us standing next to one another shirtless. And that was really the beginning of us making pictures together.

Some of my work is more personal and more subjective, but even that work has a political element because of who I am, because of my identity. And that's something that I have always embraced. I think that a lot of what I do centers around the power of letting yourself be seen and seeing others.

My name is Jess T. Dugan, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on representation and the power of portraiture.

Judy Woodruff: And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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