A weary runner pausing on a deserted track. A woman wielding a tennis racket. A fencer standing somberly with his foil. Caught by photographer Jeff Sheng, M.F.A. ’07, they look like ordinary high school and college athletes, and that’s the point. Sheng wants his camera to show that the students – all lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – could be anyone’s son, daughter, classmate, neighbor, friend.
“They’re individuals you might recognize in your life,” Sheng says. “I could make them look like fashion models, but they’re just human beings who have come out to their teammates. To me, they’re heroic, but that heroism can be achieved by everyday people.”
To salute the students and help them gain acceptance, Sheng launched a series called “Fearless.” He aims to shoot 100 students and exhibit their pictures through his “Fearless Campus Tour.” His photos are on display at the UCI Student Center Crystal Cove lounge through Friday, Oct. 17. Sheng, an art lecturer at UC Santa Barbara, will talk about his project at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14, in Humanities Hall, Room 178. His appearance is presented by ASUCI and the UCI Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center.
“The exhibition is very powerful, because the athletes look right at you,” Sheng says. “To get people to stop staring at you, you need to stare back.”
He shoots the photos wherever the athletes train – tennis courts, ski slopes, cross-country trails, running tracks and pools.
“I usually photograph them after they work out, when they’re kind of exhausted. Most magazines show athletes as perfect, untouchable, but this isn’t Sports Illustrated. I try to show their vulnerability.”
Since 2003, Sheng has photographed 65 athletes, including Oracio Sanchez, vice president of ASUCI and a fifth-year Spanish literature and global cultures double major.
“As a student athlete who came out in high school, I felt that being in the closet wasn’t an option once I got to UCI and joined the rowing team,” Sanchez says. “I’m sure many other student athletes feel the need to come out, and Jeff Sheng’s project is an amazing way to empower those who feel they are alone in the realm of sports.”
At first, Sheng had trouble finding athletes who would pose.
“I’d e-mail friends and members of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) groups. Some athletes would say, ‘I can’t be in this project. My family will disown me.’ But as time passed and I began exhibiting the photos, I found more out students willing to participate.”
Since 2006, he has held more than 30 exhibits in student centers, gyms and other student gathering places.
“It’s activist work. I want to get outside the art world,” he says. “The exhibit forces students to think about the project and sparks debate.”
Sheng knows it is difficult to be an openly gay athlete. A varsity tennis player in high school, he quit the sport after coming out his freshman year at Harvard.
“There’s still a lot of homophobia in athletics. Teens get harassed and beaten up. I knew the fear of coming out.”
Sheng started “Fearless” while pursuing his bachelor’s in film and photography and continued working on it while getting his master’s in fine arts at UCI. In addition to teaching art and Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara, he’s forming a nonprofit organization to encourage other artists to work on activist projects. Next year, he’ll publish a “Fearless” book.
“I want to make people think about the consequences of hate and intolerance in our society.”