JEFF SHENG: DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL
A former high school tennis player, Los Angeles-based photographer Jeff Sheng gave up the sport at Harvard and turned to photography instead, which led to ‘Fearless,’ a series of portraits of out high school and college athletes. A traveling exhibition of the photos was a hit on college campuses the last several years, but Sheng, 29, reached an international audience this February when ‘Fearless’ was shown during the Winter Olympics at Pride Houses in Vancouver and Whistler. His latest series, simply titled ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ antes up the ambition – and the impact – with its portraits of active-duty and reserve gay servicemembers.
As a kind of visual activism, Sheng’s effort corresponds with and enhances the advocacy coming from other fronts to end the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. But the photos also stand on their own for their poignant elegance in presenting anonymous men and women who can’t show their faces for fear of being separated from the military. Sheng, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a personal friend; I’ve visited him at his home in West Hollywood and his studio near Culver City on trips to L.A. We talked by phone in mid-March. An exhibition of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is planned at L.A.’s Kaycee Olsen Gallery in September, with the first volume available at dadtbook.com.
Portraits and video portrait of Jeff Sheng shot for EVB by Christopher Dibble
Sean Kennedy: You first became known as a photographer for ‘Fearless.’ What was the genesis of that series?
Jeff Sheng: The idea grew out of my own personal experience as a previously closeted athlete. I was looking for a photo project after graduating in 2002, trying to figure out something that hadn’t been photographed before. I decided that maybe I should embark on a project that was kind of difficult: finding out LGBT athletes on high school and college sports teams to capture on film, as still images. And it was a difficult project at first, trying to find people who would trust me to put their images into photographs. By the end of 2004 I had about 15 athletes. I was 23 years old, working internships and part-time jobs, taking any sort of savings I had and traveling around the country.
Sean: And now there are more than 100 portraits. It’s like a taxonomy of LGBT athletes.
Jeff: I don’t know any modern portraiture series that has that many photographs in it. Usually you photograph like 20-30 and then you call the edition done. For me, I am very obsessive about capturing the LGBT community in this way. One of the major influences is August Sander, the famous German photographer who tried to capture the German people in the 1920s and ’30s before Hitler came to power. It’s a very small segment of the LGBT community, but it’s also very underrepresented.
Sean: And then your new series, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ grew out of ‘Fearless,”’ right?
Jeff: I think GLAAD had done a blast about it, and PlanetOut had a profile. Suddenly I started to get emails from closeted servicemembers serving overseas. It was really odd. I remember one being like, “I’m serving in Kuwait and I just got a forward from a friend about your ‘Fearless’ project and I just wanted to say how inspiring the series is. I’m a closeted servicemember serving here and I used to play basketball and baseball at my high school.” One guy even sent me photographs of him in his baseball uniform. And then they’d say it’d be great if I worked on a project related to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I got five emails in one month about it.
Sean: And then what? You started booking photo shoots?
Jeff: I wrote back saying, “Just let me know when you’re back in the U.S.” And sure enough, I got emails saying, “I’m coming back in early 2009” or “How’s it going with your “don’t ask, don’t tell” project?” The first shoot was at the end of January 2009. I got the images back and then spent a couple months trying to figure out what I did right and what I did wrong. I was really scared to do this project at first: that the military would come after me, that I would mess up somewhere. But when I figured out how I was going to photograph “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I was on a plane like every waking moment. I traveled over 30,000 miles just for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Vol. 1.
Sean: When you say you figured out how to shoot the series, what do you mean?
Jeff: Creating portraits of these people in a way where the only thing about it was you couldn’t see their faces, yet the portrait itself resonated as a real portrait – that it still captured a sense of individualism.
Sean: All the soldiers were in the military when you photographed them?
Jeff: Yeah. I’ve photographed all branches of the military, from the Coast Guard through the Marines. They’re all still serving, whether it’s active duty or reserve. A good number of portraits show people who’ve done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was an incredibly humbling experience for me to meet somebody who had been in the line of fire.
Sean: When you met with them, did you talk about “don’t ask, don’t tell”? What did they tell you?
Jeff: Almost unanimously they suffer a lot. The stories are really diverse. They’re really touching. Ones where a friend of theirs has died while serving with them, to the indignity of “don’t ask don’t tell.”
Sean: Obviously as a blanket policy, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is highly dehumanizing, but what do you mean specifically by “indignity”?
Jeff: Well, imagine being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight for the freedom – the so-called freedom – of those countries, and not having the basic freedom when you come home to the United States to love who you want to love. That is an incredibly hypocritical statement that our government sends to these brave men and women.
Sean: I’m always interested in how accepted or known their sexual orientation is by their colleagues or commanders, since there’s such a wide variance in how “don’t ask, don’t tell” is applied. Did you get a sense of that?
Jeff: Some of them seem to be able to share more freely than others, and some – I remember meeting somebody for a photo shoot and he said to me, “You’re the third person who knows I’m gay. Me, the person who drove me here, and now you.” There’s a big variance.
Sean: You interviewed across the services, but what about the ranks?
Jeff: There’s people in the project who have been serving in the military for over 20 years. One of the people in volume two just got some huge award from the President or from Congress. You have people who’ve just enlisted all the way through the highest ranks.
Sean: Have you interviewed a general?
Jeff: I would know that. I don’t think I have. To be honest, I don’t ask. I try not to lose their trust at a certain level. If I were a journalist, I’d be forced to ask those questions: how long have you been in the military, what rank are you, where have you served. But my work is about the pictures.
Sean: Yeah, but finding subjects – sources – is the basis of reporting. I mean, finding active-duty, closeted soldiers and getting them to sit for the camera is truly an investigative feat, my friend.
Jeff: That’s on my mind now: trying to straddle the worlds of photography, art photography, activism, and journalism at the same time. It’s a tender balance. For the exhibition of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ at my dealer’s gallery in Los Angeles [in September], we’re going to figure out a way to incorporate audio of these soldiers’ experiences. I haven’t done the taping for it, but part of my summer schedule is going back to meet with some of the servicemembers who’ve done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to talk to them about what they’ve done, how they’ve served their country.
Sean: The trust element can’t be overstated. I’m trying to think of a similar artistic undertaking in which people’s livelihoods – their careers – are on the line. If your subjects were discovered, they could be kicked out of the military. It’s quite an act of bravery on their part.
Jeff: Oh, very much so – and that’s something that I’m still very surprised about. So far I’ve photographed over 40 servicemembers, and I’ll probably get about 20 more – that’s a pretty big statement on its own. It’s a trust that I’m very thankful for.
Sean: Have you continued to find subjects through word of mouth?
Jeff: Yeah. People have asked: Have you been partnering with various organizations? No, not at all. This has been all on my own. It’s difficult to get the support you need.
Sean: You’re arguably creating more change via ‘Fearless’ and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ than some of these organizations. Don’t you think?
Jeff: There’s nothing wrong with the work that these organizations do, but there’s often wasted opportunities. I’ve been lucky – I found a way to make my ideas a reality. But I wonder about all the young, amazing activists who aren’t supported by these major organizations that have tons of money. I recently applied for a grant from a very large LGBT institution. I knew the contact person, and she said the foundation’s policy is not to fund artists. I instantly thought of Kenji Yoshino’s book Covering, where his thesis essentially is that we can’t rely on laws to change everything. We need artists.
Sean: Right – we’ve been circling around this theme the whole interview: that you’re making expressly political art at a time when that’s not happening on behalf of gay issues. We haven’t really seen direct-action artwork since ACT UP’s heyday.
Jeff: The gallery system in the art world doesn’t support activist art – it really doesn’t. I’ve been lucky to have a very supportive dealer who is completely behind my work. I’m so careful to make sure that first and foremost I reference the artistic-historical element of art and photography, so hopefully I’ll be able to transcend [bias against activist art], but it’s an incredibly difficult challenge. It’s very hard to make work that does both.
Sean: I want to end this interview at the beginning: with tennis. You still play regularly, right?
Jeff: I joined the gay league in L.A. two years ago, and it’s wonderful. I play fairly competitively now.
Sean: Have you won any tournaments?
Jeff: I have, actually – I won my first tournament last September. And I was invited to play in Amsterdam this January, but I had to back out of the tournament because it happened the weekend after Obama’s State of the Union address [when the president pledged to help repeal the ban on open service by gays in the military], and “don’t ask, don’t tell” hit so fast and furious. In fact, one of the hardest things is that because my schedule has just been insane – I’ve done 20-plus photo shoots in 2010 alone so far – I’ve had to really cut back the amount of hours I play tennis.
Sean: So once again you have to sacrifice tennis for the sake of your art.
Jeff: In some strange, bizarre way, yeah. I keep getting these text messages from my tennis team being like, can you sub in? Can you practice? And I’ve just been like, “I’m in Arkansas on a shoot!”
Music in the video portrait is ‘Army Dreamers’ by Kate Bush