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Jeff Sheng: Photographing LGBT history
by Ross Forman
2010-07-01

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With camera in hand, Jeff Sheng has gone where no one else has in the LGBT community, literally.

Sheng, a Los Angeles-based photographer, has the largest photographic collection of LGBT high school and college athletes. His "Fearless" project has surpassed 100 athletes from across North America—and is scheduled to end this upcoming September, when the cameraman turns 30.

"I needed an end point for the project and I decided awhile back, that there was something poetic about spending the bulk of my 20s working on this project and wrapping it up before I turned 30," Sheng said. "The project now has over 100 athletes, and I've had exhibitions at ESPN headquarters [ in Connecticut ] , [ at ] the 2009 LGBT Human Rights Conference [ in Copenhagen ] and [ at ] the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, along with over 40 high schools and colleges around the United States.

"The one thing that I've learned from Fearless is that it never stops to amaze and surprise me. I don't know if I ever thought when I started photographing Fearless in 2003, that I would eventually be able to photograph over 100 'out' lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes on high school and college sports teams, but I was able to accomplish this.

"I have had such a wonderful, fun time photographing this series. If you think about it, I've had the opportunity to meet over 100 'out' high school and college athletes from all over the U.S. and Canada. I've traveled to almost all of their schools, and gotten to talk with them about their experiences, and to include them in my circle of friends. I've been able to exhibit and speak at over 40 venues around the world about the project and the issue. It really has been a blessing."

Sheng, who is gay and a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, is now taking another amazing photographic journey with his "Don't Ask Don't Tell" project focused on LGBT military personnel. In January, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 1" was released and can be purchased for $24.95 at www.DADTbook.com , or on Amazon.

"In 2008, I started receiving anonymous e-mails from closeted service members in our military who had seen Fearless online complimenting me on the project," Sheng said. "These service members also happened to be former athletes in high school or college, and some of them asked if I had ever considered working on a photography project featuring closeted service members affected by DADT, and suggested that I do one. I thought very carefully about this, since I knew it would be an extremely difficult project to execute properly.

"The main question I asked myself was, 'How do you create a portrait of someone without showing their actual face, and still make the portrait interesting?' To be honest, I was reluctant to do this project at first, but when these service members kept asking and telling me that I should, I finally agreed, only if they agreed to be in it, and sure enough, that's how the project began.

"What's interesting is that almost all of the participants in my DADT project were also closeted high school athletes, the overlap between the two, and while completely obvious right now, wasn't apparent until I started receiving emails from closeted service members in response to Fearless."

Sheng's first DADT photo shoot was last January. A year later, he published "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Volume 1" and to date he's photographed more than 35 service members.

"I don't think I'll get 100 in this project, but we'll see," he said.

In September, Sheng's DADT work will be on display at Kaycee Olsen Gallery in Los Angeles.

"I teach photography at the University of California, Santa Barbara, so I have access to a lot of photo history books, as I also have to teach the subject," Sheng said. "Before and during the photographing of DADT, I went through the canon of photography as much as I could and looked at as many art photographs where you could not identify the subjects in them and also images that were shot in bedrooms—just to see how other photographers had handled the situation. Josef Koudelka's masterpiece, 'Exiles,' became something I looked at almost weekly, and it really helped my approach in making these images."

Sheng admits he had countless sleepless nights when he started the DADT project, fearing that he might "ruin people's careers [ if they were identified ] or these weird dreams where the government was trying to put me in jail."

Luckily for Sheng, neither happened.

"I think it's important to show the public that those service members who are currently serving, and are also closeted, look just like every other service member serving," Sheng said. "Perhaps this is ultimately one of the greatest themes of my work in both my projects. The media often times portrays or creates certain stereotypes that we all buy into, and while in no way do I think every one should behave in a certain way, or premise one type of 'acting' over another, I think that its important to create images that show a common ground between the LGBT world and the straight world."

Jeff Sheng's comments on his top five favorite subjects from his Fearless project:

—Lauren: " [ She ] was the first athlete of color I photographed, and as someone who teaches Asian-American studies and courses on ethnicity, it was very meaningful for me to have Lauren be the first athlete of color in Fearless, since the photograph is just so intense. The two of us also spent many hours talking about her experiences as an athlete, and I think she was such an amazing role model for other young athletes."

—Andrea: "When I photographed Andrea in Gainesville in 2004, I was only 23 years old at the time and I was too young to rent a car in Florida, so I remember taking a four-hour bus [ ride ] to get to her school from the nearest airport I was flying into, and was picked me up from the Greyhound bus station. I wound up crashing on Andrea's couch for the weekend, and spent the weekend going out with her and her group of friends and, most of the time, I was probably the only guy in the group. ... To be honest, I sometimes look at the pictures and see something completely different than what everyone else sees in the photograph—I see and remember my experiences on the road getting that photograph, and the wonderful people I've met along the way."

—Matt C.: "I was a former tennis player and now play on the GLTA circuit, and Matt's photo shoot was fun because I had another athlete [ Shawn ] from the project come along and play tennis with him for the shoot. I photograph the athletes in between a work out or practice, as I try and capture something to do with their athleticism and them being an athlete, and it was great having two guys from Fearless practicing on a tennis court, and both of them are still really good friends of mine."

—Adam: "He was the 100th photo shoot in the project, and I didn't even know it. I was in Vancouver, photographing for the Canadian series of Fearless, and I knew that I had already photographed 90-something athletes, but hadn't yet broken down what the exact number was. A documentary film crew was filming Adam's photo shoot, and afterwards they interviewed me about everything. I remember mentioning that one of the photo-shoots in Vancouver was probably going to be the 100th, but it wasn't until I went home to Los Angeles, and counted up everything in my studio, did I realize that Adam was the actual 100th photo shoot in the series."

—Matt H.: "When I started Fearless, I remember people saying that I would never find any football or baseball players. Ironically, Matt isn't even the first or second football player in Fearless, but there is something so striking about his image. I remember seeing the rough edit of the photograph in my studio and having the feeling that the project was nearly complete."

Sheng added, "I could honestly write pages more about each photo shoot, and hopefully in the future, a book publication of the series will feature more of my thoughts on each image and the production behind each one. Every image in the series has a story, and I would really like to eventually share many of them with everyone."

More About Jeff Sheng's photographic journey:

—Has flown or driven over 200,000 miles for the project

—On American Airlines: "I fly [ American ] because my status allows me to check in my two bags of photo equipment without [ any ] charge, and I usually travel with about 120 pounds of equipment [ about 50 pounds per checked bag, and then I carry-on my cameras ] ."

—Has done photo shoots in about 25 states. "One of my goals was to somehow cover all [ 50 states ] ," Sheng said, "but I probably won't get there. I just don't have the money to really make that goal, and right now my time and my resources are now evenly divided between Fearless and DADT."

—Displaying Fearless at ESPN headquarters: "EPSN was great. They were such a great company to work with, and they really did an excellent job of putting Fearless in every building where everyone at their headquarters worked. I also had a few of the athletes from Fearless come and join me for a presentation for some of their employees, and I just think they were very progressive in having me exhibit my work for their company employees and to really make those in their company, who happened to be in the LGBT community, feel welcome and included."

—Sheng has spent more than $100,000 on both projects, if not more. "To be honest, I don't really care since, in the end, making compelling photographs is what drives me in life, not making money. My tax returns from last year stated that I made $12,000," he said.


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