How to Develop a Project: Jess T. Dugan

From 2011 to 2016 fototazo published a series of short essays from photographers to the basic question, "What advice do you have for starting a project?"

The series featured replies from Judith Joy RossIrina RozovskyAlejandro CartagenaPhil ToledanoSteven AhlgrenSusan LipperAmani WillettLisa KeresziEirik JohnsonRichard RenaldiBrian UlrichMark SteinmetzTim DavisNicholas NixonJeff Whetstone and Erika Diettes.

We continue with a follow-up series of advice from photographers on how to develop a project, asking them how they approach the middle ground of their projects after giving basic definition and before taking steps to finish.

Responses in this new series have come from Elinor CarucciMichael ItkoffJackie NickersonAlessandra SanguinettiChris VereneLaura El-TantawyRory MulliganVanessa WinshipChris Steele-PerkinsDragana Jurisic and Eli Durst.

Today we finish the series with Jess T. Dugan. Her biography follows the text.

For me, new projects begin to emerge naturally as I'm working on other projects. It is rare that I simply come up with an idea and decide to execute it. I make portraits constantly, often following an intuitive interest and then figuring out which images fit within a certain series afterwards. Although I present my photographs as separate bodies of work, they are ultimately all part of an ongoing quest to understand identity and the human condition.

When I moved from Boston to Chicago in 2011, I intended to continue photographing for my series "Transcendence" which focused on transgender and gender non-conforming people on the transmasculine spectrum. I found some people to photograph and made some portraits. But, when I looked at them, it was clear to me that my interests had shifted and I was becoming interested in a different set of questions than I had been previously. From there, "Every breath we drew" began to develop, a series that was less about a specific identity and more about the universal process of coming to embody one's authentic self and then seeking intimate connection with others. It was unclear to me at the beginning how to photograph not just individual people, but a kind of complex desire itself, so there were a lot of false starts, resulting in images that ultimately didn't make the edit.

Usually, a new project begins to emerge for me as a previous one is winding down. I will often make a photograph that feels different from the rest somehow. It takes me a while to determine if the photograph is different from the others in a way that enhances the project I'm working on, or if instead it is beginning to point me to a new project.

I organize my work using 8.5 x 11 prints, which I pin on a print viewing wall in my studio and also store in boxes labeled by project or category. If I make a picture that feels new, sometimes I'll pin it off to the side on the print wall and think about it for a while, looking at it each day until it starts to make sense. Once I make a few of these pictures and have an idea that a new project is forming, I'll start a new box and keep the prints in there. I read once that Nan Goldin edited this way, photographing instinctively and putting the pictures into boxes until she had enough to be a series or project. Every now and then, I pull out a specific box and look at all of the prints to see how the project is emerging or progressing.

Some of my projects have finite endings, such as my project "To Survive on this Shore," which is nearly complete at this moment. However, most of my projects are lifelong endeavors, so I think of my process more as organizing everything into chapters rather than ever really completing anything. I have a few projects focusing on my family, both my partner and my mother, that are meant to develop over the long term so I just keep adding to the box as I make new pictures.

The way I find subjects and develop projects varies quite a bit depending on the particular needs of the work. With "Every breath we drew," I seek out people who I am somehow attracted to or to whom I feel an energetic connection. As such, the process of finding people to photograph is subjective and is not something I can rush, but rather something that happens naturally throughout the course of my day-to-day life. I am still working on this series, although I let it rest for a bit after I finished working on my book in 2015 and have picked it up again more recently.

The process for making "To Survive on this Shore" is completely different. It is a collaborative project that began after I met my partner, Vanessa, in 2012 and was influenced by her research on the intersection of LGBTQ issues and aging. We launched this project together, intended from the beginning to combine portraits with narrative text and to have more of a documentary, educational element. After we had the original idea, we asked a few people we knew from our previous work to participate and made the first portraits and interviews in the summer of 2013. For about a year, I made portraits slowly as I happened to be traveling, again building up a new box of images but not putting them online or showing them to anyone yet. By early 2015, I had a solid set of about 20 images, so I designed a website and put the project out into the world. In March 2015, we had a huge press flurry, including a feature in The New York Times, that was essential for the development of the project. After that, I received hundreds of e-mails from people around the country who wanted to participate in the project. Since then, working on this project has taken the majority of my time.

There are a lot of logistics involved in making this work, such as corresponding with everyone who e-mails, keeping track of potential subjects throughout the country, planning travel, organizing shoots, booking hotels and rental cars, collaborating with local non-profits while on the road, coordinating interview transcription and editing, making and sending prints to each subject, fielding press inquiries and giving interviews, attending trans conferences to find subjects and present the work and speaking about the work at places such as LGBTQ centers, universities and non-profit organizations. After four years of work, this project is nearly complete, as I have 80 portraits and interviews and plan to add only ten more. I'm starting to work on an exhibition and book to be released in fall 2018. There were many points throughout the past four years where I technically had enough images to decide that this project was finished, but I knew that I had to let the project dictate to me when it was complete and to fully let it run its course without rushing it.

"To Survive on this Shore" begins to wind down, I have begun photographing intensively for "Every breath we drew" again. I also have a very new project in the works, but it is too soon to talk about that in any meaningful way (there are only three pictures in the box!). But the new project will also be something I can do while traveling and will require that I seek people out who meet a specific criteria, which in a way will replace my working method for"To Survive on this Shore."

For some reason, people love to ask, "What are you going to do next?" or, "Do you have a new project in mind after this one?" I follow my intuition and listen to my pictures. They are always pointing the way towards what I should do next and I have faith that, as long as I keep photographing and stay engaged, my path will present itself to me as I go.

Jess T. Dugan is an artist whose work explores issues of gender, sexuality, identity and community. She holds an MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago, a Master of Liberal Arts in Museum Studies from Harvard University, and a BFA in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work is regularly exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of several major museums.

Her first monograph, Every Breath We Drew, was published in September 2015 by Daylight Books and coincided with a solo museum exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and was selected by the White House as a 2015 Champion of Change. Jess is represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago, IL.