The American photographer’s new Mack-published book, Look at me like you love me, explores the power of human connection
“One moment you’re 25 and kissing in the car, beginning the intoxicating dance of falling in love, and suddenly, ten years go by, and you’re raising a child and reckoning with the knowledge that this is it.” Jess T Dugan is reflecting on the ruthlessness of time. But also on a poignant truth: that when we pick apart the epochs of our lives, love – and our pursuit of it – remains constant. After all, how do you meaningfully define a life, if not by the people in it?
It’s a question at the heart of Dugan’s new book, Look at me like you love me, published by Mack. In frank and intimate portraits of themself, their partner, their friends, and people they’ve been drawn to over the years, the photographer explores the ways in which our identities are shaped by relationships: by love that we find, and love that we build; love that is ripped from us, or love we decide to leave behind.
“It’s inherently vulnerable to be in relationships with other people,” Dugan tells AnOther. “But we all want to be loved and desired and cared for. We all seek a reflection of our own identity through the eyes of another person.”
Over the last 15 years, Dugan has carved a distinguished career contemplating humanity through a queer lens. They began taking photos as a teenager, when the camera became a tool for understanding and affirming their queer identity. They would go on to create several long-term projects lauded for their rich and authentic representations of LGBTQ+ people, of which Look at me like you love me is the latest installment.
Dugan describes the book as a kind of “visual poem”. There is no introduction or curatorial text; no acknowledgments or broader context. Rather, each turn of the page presents an ethereal ebb and flow of disjointed image and text, open to the reader for interpretation. The writings are searingly personal, musing on connection, longing, passion and pain: regrets that Dugan’s father could not love them unconditionally; the all-consuming nature of physical desire. Disconnected from the photographs to which they pertain, the words lodge themselves in the mind like memories, dormant until you happen upon an image that reminds you.
In something of a departure from earlier work, wherein Dugan shot much of their portraiture inside, Look at me like you love me sees queer bodies pose amid nature and lush greenery; a nod to the organic, and the pride and comfort of simply being who you are in open space. They talk lovingly of how each of their sitters reflects something in themself, and the painstaking process of capturing it: drawing inspiration from art historical portraiture, and taking several hours collaborating on pose, gesture, and expression. On one page in the book, above an image of Dugan’s partner, Vanessa, submerged in a body of water, a line reads simply: “Where is the line between me and you?”
Now 35, Dugan has settled down with Vanessa in St Louis, Missouri, and is raising a three-year-old daughter. It’s marked a new era for their work; their photographs have become less about “trying to define or assert one’s identity,” and instead just “really living in it”. That is to say, simply existing – as a queer person, of course; but also just a person. “I did all of the writing and put together the book during the pandemic,” they add, “which meant I was in this heightened state of self-reflection. Really mining these questions, like, what keeps us fulfilled as humans? What makes a meaningful life? What role does connection with others play?”
These are universal questions. And therein lies the quiet, but mighty, magic of Dugan’s latest book: with each bare arm that softly envelopes the body of another – each ray of light that falls upon glistening skin – any viewer can see themselves. They can recognise the love and closeness that they, too, have felt, and that’s helped them become who they are.
Look at me like you love me is published by Mack Books and is available now.