He Asked, They Posed
Photographer brings his “Fearless” collection to CSUMB.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Astudent athlete in the LGBT community, Jeff Sheng spent his youth searching for a place to belong. At 30 years old, he has created that place for himself and others by using a camera.
A photography teacher and Asian studies instructor from UC-Santa Barbara, Sheng gained nationwide attention for his haunting portraits of closeted gay and lesbian military members. On Nov. 30, he brings another photo collection to CSU-Monterey Bay, a seven-year project to photograph 125 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender high school and college athletes who are open about their sexuality.
Sheng hopes the “Fearless” collection, shown at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and displayed at more than 40 colleges and high schools in the last four years, will combat homophobia in school sports.
“This was a chance for these people to be part of a group that is proud of their identities,” Sheng says. “You realize you’re not just one person.”
When military personnel got wind of “Fearless” in 2009, they suggested Sheng take on the high-risk and seemingly untold story of gay service members. While hesitant at first because of the potential consequences, Sheng eventually photographed five people with their faces concealed. As word spread, five subjects became 70.
“I was surprised that so many people came forward,” says Sheng, who photographs his military subjects at motels near their stations. “Even though you can’t see their faces, the fact that they’re there and you can see their bodies in uniform – it’s powerful.”
That so many military members would risk their careers to participate is astounding, but for Sheng, their decision to risk their lives for our country is most remarkable.
“During the project, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ took on a whole other meaning,” he says. “Their sexuality is not at the forefront of these photographs, but rather their uniforms and their service.”
Whether or not their faces are cupped by their hands, outside the frame or hidden by hats, the participants in both projects are standing up for gay rights. That’s the message Matisse Reischl, president of CSUMB’s LGBT organization, Out and About, hopes will spread on campus.
“There is so much pressure for athletes to maintain a certain norm, and if you are outside that norm you’re often not accepted,” Reischl says. “I’m incredibly grateful to the students that participated in the project. The courage and strength they show is inspiring.”
As part of the CSUMB President’s Speaker Series, designed to promote diversity and intellectual stimulation, Sheng’s lecture will discuss “Fearless,” “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and his experiences as an activist of color. “Fearless” will also be exhibited Nov. 22-30 in the World Theater lobby.
“Sheng is using the art of photography to address issues that are relevant and timely in society today,” CSUMB spokesman Scott Faust says. “The series is intended to be thought-provoking, and I’m sure our audience will come away with a new perspective.”
Sheng’s photos might not change all viewers’ opinions, but he’s optimistic about the future of LGBT rights regardless. “I believe that art can easily be a catalyst for change, but it’s also a marker and reminder of this point in history,” he says. “In 20 or 30 years, we’ll look back and view these photos as emblematic of governmental policies and the shortcomings of our society.”