Gay Jocks On Film
Jeff Sheng, an accomplished photographer, competitive athlete, avid sports fan and activist dedicated to LGBT causes, has managed masterfully to channel all his passions into one project, a series of photographs he has aptly named "Fearless." Sheng's lens captures young gay and lesbian jocks from high school and college campuses throughout the country in all their bravery, beauty, intensity, vulnerability and, most of all, humanity.
There's Andrew, the Rutgers crew team member who used his photo shoot with Sheng as part of his coming-out process; Shawn, the San Diego State tennis player who had left Brigham Young University when he discovered his sexuality did not jibe with the institution's code of conduct; Mike, the Harvard water polo player who was Sheng's first love and whose image the photographer finds "profoundly sad"; Lauren, the Mount Holyoke basketball player whose image "transcends sexuality"; and many other "Fearless" athletes whose inclusion in this series is an inspiration to us all.
"When we shot this photo, it was five in the morning. I made him row and then we went out to the dock. I had a lighting kit set up so I could match the morning light coming up over the water. You can see the mist and fog. This picture is also sort of quiet. He's alone. There's a sense of solitude.
"Andrew had just come out when we did the photo shoot. This project was actually part of his coming-out process. 'This is me,' he wanted to say."
"Mike and I met at Harvard when we were both freshmen, and he was my first boyfriend. I had stopped playing tennis by then because I knew how homophobic athletics could be and I wanted to come out. It's interesting that my first love was an athlete on the Harvard water polo team.
"He came out our junior year. He ended up being interviewed by Genre, and he wound up on the magazine's cover. For a while, he was a poster boy for gay athletics.
"I think most photographers are sentimental. I wouldn't be one if I weren't. When everybody sees this image, they probably see a good-looking guy with a really great body, but photographs have different meanings to different people. When I see the picture, I see years and years of my own life in it. For me the photograph is actually quite sad."
"With Lauren, I wanted to push myself to capture both her power and her beauty. I had her do some really intense basketball drills, and told her to approach me as if it were during a game and she either had to pass the ball or maybe get around me or do something else surprising.
"Both of us were incredibly exhausted. And because of it I think there was this kind of connection between us. She was just completely drenched in sweat. In the image she exudes power and allure, but also a presence that transcends just sexuality."
"Shawn came out when he was playing tennis for Brigham Young University. At the time, he was a devout Mormon. The school had certain policies about conduct, and being gay apparently was not an acceptable form of conduct there. So he decided to leave and take some time off, but finally ended up at San Diego State, which welcomed him into its tennis team. He's a great player, and actually went pro for a while before suffering a shoulder injury."
"People have said to me that Jamal is physically amazing and has the most incredible body they've ever seen in an athlete, that he's someone who's completely trained for his sport. I think that's true, but at the same time when you get to meet him you find he's incredibly personable, he's always smiling, he's always happy to see you, he's got great things to say about everyone, and I think that's ultimately what's really striking about him. He gets a lot of respect from his peers, both gay and straight, and commands respect from other young athletes.
"When I shot this photo, I wanted to make him look at you in a level way. The viewer and he are at the same level. He has this look of confidence, and he's looking back at you from the track with sweat covering his face. One of his eyes is sort of in shadow, but the one you can see is very provocative."
"Jeff and I went down to the fencing area and I had him do a bunch of fencing drills. I was completely awestruck by how physically challenging fencing was. He broke into a sweat within minutes.
"After half an hour, I had him stop. He was nervous, because he had never posed for a professional shoot. I just said to look into the camera and don't think of anything else -- don't feel awkward or self-conscious or shy or weird. So he just looked into the camera and had this incredibly intense look in his eyes that I loved.
"Being on the West Coast, I didn't know a lot about fencing. I think of it more as an East Coast sport. I asked Jeff if fencing was an NCAA sport and he said yeah. I asked how his team had done the past year and he said that they were No. 1 in the country. I felt awful. I'd been shooting a national fencing champion and didn't know it."
"In high school, Jamie was involved in track and field, volleyball and tennis, and she played rugby at Dartmouth. She was 18 when I met her. I asked her when she came out, and she said, 'When I was 15." She had this quiet confidence about her. I've discovered through this project that when athletes come out at a young age they have a power within them that they hold going forward. It's fearlessness. It's the whole theme of my project.
"During our shoot, a storm was coming through. We found a 45-minute window to do the shoot, and in that time I captured this great image of her -- a calm and powerful presence in the middle of the storm. Her look says that there's nothing to hide. There's honesty in that look. There's no pretense."
"At the time of this shoot, Jordan had just graduated from Williams College and had come out during his senior year. We went up to the mountains of New Hampshire, and it was raining and snowing. I was basically in two feet of slush during the whole shoot.
"This photo seems to resonate with people because of the intimacy involved. When you look at the picture, you realize you're only about three or four feet away from him and he's looking slightly up at you and you see the honesty in his eyes. It's as if he wants to tell you more about himself. As with all my athletes, there's an element of vulnerability I want to capture."
"Ella was the first person I shot for this project. At the time she was at Harvard, where I was studying photography. She really believed in the importance of this project and wanted to help other LGBT athletes.
"At the [Harvard] boathouse, I had her do five minutes of rowing and then hade her turn and look at the camera. In the photograph, she's in mid-motion. She's in the middle of her sport. If you look, her feet are still in the foot straps and she's breathing heavily.
"I love the physical presence of her body. The picture reminds me a lot of a Caravaggio, in the way her shoulders and arms have this athletic build to them, but also how the lighting softens her."
"Aaron was one of my very first subjects for this series, and he was very nervous in front of a camera. I decided to have him work out for a half hour really hard and then have him look at the camera when he was so exhausted he wouldn't be so self-conscious.
"A lot of the pictures came back with him looking absolutely terrible -- him barely being able to breathe, him not able to stand up. But I got a couple of images back that had this incredible intensity. You can see the individual beads of sweat coming off his body.
"The other thing I like about this photo is its subtlety. You instantly know he's on a squash court because you see those dark marks in the background, and can see those are the marks of the ball on the court."