In 2012, photographer Jess Dugan and social worker/assistant professor Vanessa Fabbre began interviewing and photographing transgender and gender nonconforming adults older than 50, beginning with people they knew.
They began collaborating out of a shared desire to shed light on this underrepresented group. More than five years of work snowballed into To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adultsconsisting of a book released in September, an exhibition, a portfolio for museums and teaching institutions, an expansive archive of oral history and much more. The project documents images and experiences of older trans adults all over the country, but it has deep roots in Chicago.
"Chicago was the place where all of my interest developed in LGBT aging issues," said Fabbre. Though both partners live in St. Louis now, they have strong professional ties to Chicago. They met many of the eight or nine Chicago residents included in the book through involvement in Chicago's trans community. During the ten years she lived here, Fabbre earned her Ph. D. in social work at the University of Chicago, worked as a social worker at Rush University Medical Center and volunteered as a psychotherapist at the Center on Halsted. Dugan was working on her MFA in photography at Columbia College Chicago when she met Fabbre and began working on the project. She is represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery in River North.
"When we began working on the project, we really wanted to include a diverse group of people, and we sought out diversity in a number of ways including age, race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic class, geographic location and life narrative," said Dugan. Fabbre added, "We wanted to capture real challenges but also to show all the different ways that people find a sense of authenticity and joy, and a way of making peace with things as they age." The team traveled to their subjects' homes or locations with personal significance. Fabbre interviewed the narrators for about an hour, which often led to ideas for the location, poses or props used in the portraits. Dugan then shot photos for thirty minutes to an hour.
"My style of photographing required a significant amount of collaboration and participation from each person," said Dugan. She shot most of the portraits in natural light, using a tripod and slow shutter speeds to capture rich detail. Signs of the subjects' geographic locations are evident in many of the photographs, from cacti and stucco walls in the Southwest to graffiti, stone stairways and wrought iron fences of cities in the Northeast.
"Space and place are really important parts of [the subjects'] stories and how they've come to think of themselves...Surviving challenging places required that they engage and make community and change the places that they live to make them be more accepting," said Fabbre.
The cover portrait of Gloria Allen was taken at the intersection of Surf and Pine Grove in Lakeview, in front of an affordable senior housing building she was living in at the time of the shoot. In her interview, she spoke about challenges she faced living there: neighbors who were not trans-friendly and navigating challenging social situations as an older adult. Now Gloria lives in an apartment at one of Chicago's LGBTQ community centers. Dugan and Fabbre chose her for the cover photo after long consideration: representation and mood were important factors in their decision.
"I think Gloria seemed like the perfect photo for the cover because she is so proud. It also shows her in a real place, in a city, so you think about her experience in the world," said Dugan. "Also visually and formally, we really love the portrait of Gloria and we love that she's looking right out at the viewer and...sharing her world in a way." Dugan shared that the average life expectancy for trans women of color is 35. At 70 years old the day her photo was taken, Gloria emerged as the perfect example of surviving and thriving under difficult circumstances.
"One of the things that's been really nice to see is that ...the project serves as a collection of representations and role models...for younger trans people, but it also serves as more of an educational piece and an entrance point for people who don't know anything about the trans community because they can relate to the aging element," said Dugan. Though the project was only recently finished, the portraits and interview content are already being used by various organizations for advocacy and education. A group in San Francisco has used some of the portraits for an advocacy campaign, and a group in Boston is creating a training module using the photos and interviews to educate other older adults about trans older adults that they might encounter in senior centers or nursing homes.
"We've spent the past five years getting to this point, and so in some ways, the creation of work is done, but we're really really hopeful that with the release of the book that we're just beginning the advocacy and education phase of the project. We're looking to collaborate with as many nonprofits as possible who are interested in using the work for education or training," said Dugan. She hopes the book lands in places that aren't art-specific, such as senior centers, nursing homes and hospitals.
Many of the participants are likewise just beginning their involvement with the project. Book release events are the first chance Dugan and Fabbre have had to invite the participants to sit on panels with them. Three of the subjects from Chicago, Mickey Mahoney, Alexis Martinez and Gloria Allen, the subject on the book's cover, will participate in a panel at Women & Children First Sunday, Sept. 30 at 4 p.m. Other participants from Chicago will also be present.
There are a few other places to catch To Survive on This Shore in Chicago: Dugan will be promoting the project at Filter Photo Festival on Sept. 26-30 and EXPO Chicago on Sept. 27-30. The Museum of Contemporary Photography has acquired some of the photos for its permanent collection.