Over the last five years photographer Jeff Sheng has been photographing out gay and lesbian high school and college athletes from around the country. To date he has photographed over 50 athletes who comprise his touring exhibit, the Fearless Campus Tour, which has appeared at a number of college and high school campuses since 2006.
“While these individuals are only a small segment of the LGBTQ community, I wanted to photograph them and give them visibility because they exemplify a particular courage and self-confidence in being “out” at a very young age while also competitively participating in the often-times homophobic world of sports,” says Sheng, a photographer and professor of Asian-American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the artist’s statement on the project’s Web site. “More importantly, these individuals do not let fear stand in the way of being true to themselves and enjoying what life has to offer. This is a lesson that is universal.”
One of the courageous athletes in the project attended school in Utah. Ryan Quinn competed as a cross-country skier on the University of Utah’s Ski Team until his graduation in 2003. As the skier tells it, he was one of the first athletes Sheng photographed.
“Jeff contacted me in 2004, shortly after I’d graduated from the U and moved from SLC to Seattle,” remembers Quinn, who now lives in New York City and works as a columnist for outsports.com, a Web site that covers sports from a gay perspective. Quinn, who came out to his “terrifically supportive” teammates as a sophomore, said that the shoot was different and more exciting than those in which he had previously participated, including one for the gay magazine The Advocate.
For the shoot, Sheng and Quinn hiked out “quite a ways” on the ski trails.
“His concept with the photos is to capture the athlete right after giving a maximum effort in his sport,” Quinn recalls. “So in my case I skied about a kilometer as fast as I could, and ended by climbing a nasty steep hill, so when the picture is taken I'm exhausted – barely able to stand. I think that was a great idea, because that feeling of exhaustion is so linked with being an athlete, and it's also a moment of vulnerability, which is something every openly gay athlete has experienced.”
Quinn says he is “thrilled” that Sheng’s project is now traveling the country and serving as a jumping off point for students to hold discussions on homophobia in the sports world – a fact which is amplified by the exhibit’s appearance in high schools and college campuses.
“All of these athletes have made such a positive impact on their teams and at their schools, and the reason for this is because they are just being themselves. Athletes who are gay,” he says. “And that simple fact defies so many stereotypes, in both the gay and mainstream culture. The most powerful statement you can make is to come out, and to see a room full of these photos really puts a personal and diverse face on what that can mean.”
Sheng echoes this sentiment.
“My intention of this work is not to say that this is how all LGBTQ bodies actually look like, or that my photographs represent how everyone in the community should look like. I want to defend the work as simply singular photographs of particular individuals: unique in their own experiences and lives,” he says.
Ultimately, Sheng’s goal is to take photographs of over 100 athletes for inclusion in a photo-book of the exhibition to be released in 2009. To reach his goal he is looking for student or recently-graduated athletes of all shapes, sizes and races who are out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer. As long as subjects fit these criteria, Sheng says he will not turn them down, no matter where they are in the US. As a person of color, however, Sheng says he’s particularly interested in taking photos of other athletes of color.
“My motto is that if you are willing to be in the project, I will figure out a way to get there and get the photographs taken,” he says. “In fact, every athlete who has volunteered and winds up being photographed, winds up in the final project.”