“I want to tell you things; I want you to know my story. There is so much I can’t say in my photographs, though it’s all there, just below the surface, if you know what to look for.” These are the very first words you’ll find in American portrait photographer Jess T. Dugan’s new photobook, Look at me like you love me. Written by Dugan, they introduce a series of diaristic missives that are interspersed throughout the book’s edit, cutting through the space in amongst the pictures, each one revealing something of the photographer’s innermost thoughts.
Soon after, Dugan writes, “I learned to name myself through desire, to understand what it felt like to be seen,” and from this sentence, the whole book tumbles. Across 108 pages of images—mostly portraits and self-portraits accompanied by the occasional still life—there is desire, love, people embracing, intimacy, tenderness between bodies, and there is seeing and being seen. In this book, Dugan opens up their queer life experience and takes us with them. Right from the beginning, it is a deeply affecting and emotional object.
The portraits in Look at me like you love me are naturally lit and simply staged without props or elaborate sets, yet they are richly complex in gesture and gaze and the expert ways they hold space for every sitter to be entirely themselves. In some, Dugan’s models are intense, their searching gazes staring down the camera, while in others they’re softer, eyes smiling. Some people are photographed alone, in outdoor settings or at home, and others are photographed together—couples with limbs entwined in one another. Regardless of set-up though, what unites them all is that every one of them has allowed themselves to be vulnerable for Dugan, sharing scars both hidden and skin-deep.
One of the most captivating things about Look at me like you love me is its framing of getting to know people, and of probing human experience, through the language of photography. Throughout the book, for instance, Dugan muses on what it was like to take the photographs, what went through their mind, what photographer and model spoke about each time, how they loosened up together—tracing the process of portrait-making amidst telling us some very personal parts of their own life and identity too. And all of those thoughts are written directly to the sitters, meaning everyone is simply referred to as ‘you’ like snippets from recollections or letters. Curiously also, none of these texts are assigned to a specific image and some seem to be describing a picture that comes two or three images after it in the edit. This keeps us searching ever-further into the book, looking for poses that reflect each semblance of words, wondering how each portrait turned out in the end. It isn’t told to us, of course, and it doesn’t need to be—that’s something just for Dugan and the individual they shared a moment with each time.
“I usually find the magic I’m looking for in a direct gaze: open, confident, inviting. With you, the magic happened when you looked away…” reads one of these texts, while elsewhere, others hint at greater experiences of grief and loss. “We had plans to make more pictures together, had ideas about locations, poses. It took me a long time to delete your final texts, so casual, so utterly not indicative of the depth of your struggle,” says another, and on the same page Dugan addresses this person after their funeral. It’s hard not to sit searchingly with the images swelling from that part of the book, wondering what invisible suffering the camera stood before. That’s when it really becomes clear this is also a book about committing people to memory, holding them, and saying loudly they were here.
“You were always hard to photograph, though we were committed, doing it over and over until it worked, creating a record together of your changing body,” Dugan writes to this same person, and that line really encapsulates the importance of persistence in portrait-making. Because it’s not always easy to tell someone’s story in one picture, is it? Despite the clean set of final images presented to us here, this is the photographer revealing how sometimes a portrait needs to be worked at, imperfect, changing, ever-shifting towards something that feels like us in the end.
Throughout Look at me like you love me Dugan photographs the people they know in order to feel around the edges of their own queerness, giving shape to their identity. The words and images ebb and flow through stories of life and loss, of healing moments, rainfall, the way sunlight hits grass, and then occasionally there’s a fracture; something painful that resets the tone once again. And all the while, the part photography has played is circled back to, its importance in this artist’s growth journey made clear.
“All of this time, in bedsheets and bathtubs, in fields of violets and prairie grasses, in intimate gazes and gentle gestures, I have been looking, and creating space, for myself,” they write towards the end of the book, and perhaps therein lies the greatest secret to a powerful portrait—not only must it capture something of the person we see, but also something of the person who saw them—the one who took the picture before us now. A photograph is nothing if not a mirror, after all. In this sense, it only seems fitting that the final image in this book is a self-portrait. Standing before a body of water, eyes closed, expression calm, Dugan reaches up and clasps their hands above their head. It feels free and truthful and peaceful—the pose of someone at home in the body that houses them.