Visualizing change

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Visualizing change

by Carly Chillmon on Monday, December 14, 2015 - 12:05pm

Seeing is believing. It can also be life changing. Jeff Sheng, photographer and doctoral candidate in sociology at Stanford, has an eye towards changing lives. In his book, “FEARLESS: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes,” Sheng embarks on a visual journey that combines ethnography, history and personal memoir to challenge perceptions of sexuality, masculinity/femininity and sports. 

Sheng's 13-year "Fearless" project was intended to depict “out” LGBT athletes in a way that had not been seen previously in photography; but it was also very much about the athletes themselves. "I wanted to tell my story, their story, and the story of the whole LGBT rights movement in sports," Sheng says. In an attempt to push the images beyond mere portraits, Sheng photographed over 200 athletes after their workouts. “The athletes were so focused on me making them run laps or swim that by the time they got to the photo-shoot, they weren’t smiling anymore,” recalls Sheng. By creating this intense situation, he hoped to capture their essence as athletes, and then lay on top of that their sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Imagery can be a powerful tool. Images can reinforce stereotypes or shake up our reality. Sheng uses photography to disrupt our traditional perceptions and to open new avenues for our imaginations about who is a star athlete and what defines their athletic prowess. In doing so, he aims to disrupt, and expand, our perceptions.

Seeing “out” athletes

Josh DixonJosh Dixon, a 2011 Stanford alumnus and gymnast currently training for the 2016 Olympics, was one of the athletes photographed for the “Fearless” project. In reflecting on his own experience with the project, Dixon said, “For young athletes or college athletes, Jeff's work is a showpiece so people can see those who have come before them or are currently in the world of sports and know that they can live as their true, authentic selves.” This notion of “seeing” is pivotal in Sheng’s work.

“Seeing the pictures gives this book its weight,” he says. “You start to see people who look like people you know. You begin to see and understand them at a very different level. It's very humanizing.”

In 2006, Sheng began showing these photographs in exhibitions all over the country and the world. Importantly, he noticed that people would stop, look at the photographs and be challenged by what they were seeing. This process would happen in an instant and affect people’s understanding and acceptance.

Dixon also commented on how he experienced change through Sheng’s work. “Learning about different athletes as I saw them through [Sheng’s] work and then meeting them at a Nike summit, made me realize how many people are doing impactful things in so many facets of the sporting world, which is inspiring.” 

Overcoming obstacles

Although many mainstream publishers suggested Sheng change the focus of his project to Olympic athletes or famous ex-athletes who have since come out, Sheng stuck to keeping it about high school and college “out” athletes. Through a Kickstarter campaign, he fundraised over $50,000, which enabled him to approach an independent publishing firm and create the work he wanted.

While photographing LGBT student athletes, Sheng heard their stories and was inspired by how they had come full circle with their sexual or gender identities. What struck him most wasn’t necessarily hearing stories of their struggles, but rather how these athletes overcame them and how open and proud they had become.

One of the most memorable exhibitions and talks Sheng did was at Williams College, where an athlete he had photographed was on the men's crew team. The entire team supported him by attending the talk and sharing the excitement of his being included in the project. Sheng was particularly moved by the experience. “It really showed at the local level how change occurs. Famous people like Jason Collins have come out and certainly brought about a lot of change in doing so. But, we also have individuals talking to their own families and friends, who have changed how people perceive what LGBT people are like at a local level,” he reflects.

Being seen and affecting change

Purposefully exhibiting his work in nontraditional venues, such as student centers, gyms and campus athletic facilities, Sheng wants to affect the mindset of students, particularly student athletes. At one university, besides showcasing his work at the LGBT center, he also taped some of his photographs on the gym so that as people—mostly athletes—were walking in, they would see the images.

Having the exhibition challenge athletes to rethink their world is powerful. “One athlete saw an exhibition of my work at her high school and contacted me years later,” Sheng recalls. “She told me how, at the time, she was an athlete and was struggling with her own sexual orientation. She didn't think athletes could be LGBT or lesbian. She wrote a powerful email about how this experience really changed her.” Even today, people contact Sheng to tell him they saw his exhibition at school, and it impacted their lives.

“I hope people become inspired,’ says Sheng, ‘whether it’s speaking up in a classroom if somebody is being sexist or racist, speaking up amongst their friends if they are being transphobic, or just being allies to everybody, to all different identities.” For Sheng, there’s real power in being seen, especially when it leads to broader social change.

Jeff Sheng
Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow in Sociology, Stanford

Jeff Sheng is an American artist whose photographic work over the last decade has focused on the 21st century LGBT rights movement. His photographs on this topic have been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Advocate, and The New Yorker, among others.