To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and gender variant older adults

January 2015 | Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre

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Tell us a bit about your background and your professional work.

Vanessa: As a social worker in Chicago I came to realize how important identity is for transgender people who are growing older, and how marginalized these identities are in mainstream aging and social services.  As a social scientist, I also experience how transgender identities are ignored or minimized in gerontology.  My research explores how LGBTQ identified people navigate social constraints and opportunities throughout the life course, especially in later life.  

Jess:  I’m a fine art portrait photographer and I also identify along the transmasculine spectrum.  For the past decade, I have been photographing people within queer and transgender communities, focusing on the complexities of identity, gender, and sexuality.  I have recently completed a body of work titled Every breath we drew, which explores the power of identity, desire, and connection through portraits of myself and others.  This project was recently exhibited at Gallery Kayafas, a photography gallery, in Boston, MA.  This coming fall, it will be exhibited as a solo museum exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL and will be published as a monograph by Daylight Books.  Ultimately, my goal is a photographer is to make portraits that speak to both specific, individual experience as well as to the universal condition of being human. 

What is the To Survive on this Shore project? 

To Survive on this Shore is a collaborative project that combines photographs of transgender and gender variant people over the age of fifty with interviews about their life experiences with respect to gender, identity, age, and sexuality and provides a nuanced view into the complexities of aging as a transgender person.

Our project seeks to complicate the ways in which transgender older adults are portrayed and perceived in the arts, humanities and social sciences by combining formal portrait photographs with excerpts from biographical interviews. Within scholarship on aging, LGBTQ issues- especially transgender issues- have received little attention. Within the photographic realm, representations of the transgender community are lacking, and those that do exist tend to focus on the younger generation. Like any community, the transgender community is diverse in many ways, including across the spectrum of age.

Ultimately, it is our intention to publish a book of the photographs and interviews as well as to exhibit the work within fine art gallery and museum spaces.  We hope to provide visibility to a community that is often overlooked because of age and gender, and to encourage empathy, understanding, and dialogue around these issues.  By combining our experiences working as a photographer and social worker within the transgender community, we hope to create a project that is simultaneously highly personal and socially relevant.

What inspired you to create the project? 

When we met, we realized that we had a lot of overlapping interests, and we had also both worked extensively within transgender and gender variant communities.  We knew that representations of older transgender people are nearly absent from both photography and social science domains, and those that do exist are often one-dimensional.  We realized that we could combine our interests and skill sets to create a compelling project about issues we both care about deeply. 

Early on, we heard from a younger transgender man who told us that he had no visualizations for what it would look like to grow older as a trans person.  There was a lack of representations of older transgender people, as well as a lack of complex narratives.  We hope that we can not only allow people to tell their stories and share their experiences, capturing significant LGBTQ history, but that we can also provide a visualization for growing older as a transgender person.  And, in many ways, the project is about the universal themes of a desire to live an authentic life and the experiences of growing older- something that everyone can relate to, regardless of their identity.   

How are you funded?

Up until this point, we have been entirely self-funded, but we are currently looking for sponsorship on a larger scale, including both individual and institutional support.  We have been working on the project as we are able, either locally or as we are traveling for other engagements, but the next step is to be able to travel around the country to include more people and to share more stories.  We have received interest from individuals throughout the country, but we need the funding to travel to them. 

There are many ways to support the project, ranging from financial sponsorship to bringing us to your city to make photographs.  If you are affiliated with a university or non-profit organization, you can sponsor our visit and also help us connect with the local community.  Financial contributions go directly to the support of the project and to the creation of new photographs and interviews. 

We began this project in the fall of 2013 and have photographed and interviewed over twenty people to date in locations such as Boston, MA, Northampton, MA, Chicago, IL, Birmingham, AL, Detroit, MI, Richmond, VA, San Diego, CA, Bellingham, WA, Portland, OR, St. Louis, MO, and Williamsburg, VA.

How can our website visitors help get the word out about it?

Spread the word to people who are interested in being included in the project or in supporting the project.  If they are so moved, there is a donation button on the “Support our project” section of our project’s website: 


Jess T. Dugan is an artist whose work explores issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and community. For the past decade, Jess has photographed people within queer and transgender communities, focusing on the complexities of identity, gender, and sexuality. Jess earned a BFA in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, a Master of Liberal Arts in Museum Studies from Harvard University, and an MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago.  Jess regularly exhibits internationally and has work in several museum collections.  Learn more at:

Vanessa Fabbre, PhD, LCSW is an Assistant Professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.  She received her PhD from the University of Chicago where her dissertation, Gender Transitions in Later Life, explored issues of gender, identity, and aging. Vanessa’s research explores the intersection of LGBTQ issues and gerontology, focusing specifically on transgender and queer perspectives on aging and the life course.   At the Brown School she teaches courses in social justice, direct social work practice with older adults, and social, economic and political environment. Learn more at: