American photographer and social justice activist Jeff Sheng shared his 13-year long project and book “Fearless” with students on Monday at 7 p.m. in the Smith Student Center Ballroom.
Sheng said that “Fearless” is a photography series of LGBT+ athletes of all ethnicities. The project is a compilation of 204 athletes. The book is all inclusive, featuring every athlete who volunteered to be a part of this project.
“The book has eight different covers because we couldn’t pick which athlete was going to be the cover,” Sheng said.
The different covers are also in eight colors so when lined up they create the original rainbow flag. He said the book took three years to design the layout. He wanted the book to have a coffee table book feel to it.
Sheng explained that there is a lot of trust that goes into this type of photography.
“In each of these photo shoots, you know, it’s a combination of either lighting kit or natural lighting,” Sheng said. “I sort of look for an image where you can really see into somebody.”
He said that photographing an individual is an intimate moment between the photographer and the subject. Sheng feels haunted sometimes by his photographs because he feels like he knows the people just by looking at their picture.
Sheng said that he photographed people in between workouts so that he could capture the beads of sweat on their bodies and faces.
Sheng included his story throughout the book and lecture.
“I actually identify as part of the LGBT commmunity,” he said.
Sheng explained he didn’t actually come out until college because he went to a large public school in Southern California. He said he had a hard time finding out who he really was.
Sheng played tennis throughout high school, but that he chose not to play his senior year.
“I actually decided not to play my senior year, and a lot of it was because I thought that by avoiding sports, I would be able to find the space in order to finally deal with the questions I had about my sexual orientation at the time,” Sheng said.
When Sheng was in high school, he tried to fit in with the crowd and tease LGBT+ students through homophobic slurs, but now he regrets treating people that way.
As an adult, Sheng thinks that out LGBT+ athletes are heroic because he didn’t have the courage to be out when he played tennis in high school.
Sheng said it was eye opening for him to begin to photograph people who identify as transgender.
“I wasn’t aware of the kinds of challenges they faced,” he said. “It’s a huge coming out for them, different from what a lot of the gay, lesbian and bisexual athletes have to face.”
Sheng also touched upon his other photography series, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which features more than 80 closeted service members. This series presented these service members with their faces covered, representing their closeted identities. The pictures gained a lot of traction from major news outlets.
“And so these photographs quickly just got emailed, well not really emailed but social media took over and news agencies asked about them,” Sheng said. “And I was also being interviewed by The New York Times and ABC World News talking about the lives of these people because many of the service members couldn’t participate in it.”
Sheng holds a BA from Harvard University, an MA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. He taught photography and Asian studies classes at multiple universities as well.
Sheng’s work has been featured in Time Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The Advocate, The New Yorker and Newsweek. He also presented work at Nike Headquarters, ESPN Headquarters and at the 2009 International Conference for the Human Rights Campaign in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Before the event started Jodi Solito, director of the Women’s Center and Pride Center, announced the lecture was part of Pride Week which she explained as a week dedicated to the awareness of the LGBT+ and ally community at SRU.
“This is the kick-off to Pride Week,” Solito said.
After the event, Sheng opened the floor up for questions and sold his book to students for a discounted price of $20 which he also signed.
Sheng’s lecture was sponsored by the Pride Center and RockOUT.
Sheng’s “Fearless” exhibit is for viewing in the commuter lounge of the Smith Student Center until Oct. 23. It will then be moved to the Art Building from Oct. 26 until Oct. 30.