Photographer focuses lens on gay athletes
By Thomas Bukowski
Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Students hurrying through the Collis Student Center a little slower than most may have noticed the recent addition of around 20 photographs of athletes on display. Titled "Fearless," the exhibition documents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered athletes in colleges and high schools across the nation, including Dartmouth: sprinter Jamal Brown '08, lacrosse goalie Andrew Goldstein '05 and Acting Dean of the College Dan Nelson's son, Jack, a skiier and 2007 graduate of Williams College.
"Fearless" is the brainchild of photographer Jeff Sheng, a full-time lecturer at University of California at Santa Barbara. Sheng said that the idea first came to him in Fall 2003 while he was completing his photography and film major at Harvard and was looking for a theme to focus on for his first major body of work.
"The world of athletics was familiar to me," said Sheng, who played tennis competitively in high school and said he had a relationship with a high-profile water polo athlete in his first year in college. Focusing his lens on the intersection of athletics and sexuality, he said, was a natural choice.
"Both the athletic and GLBT community feel that the other side is excluding their own," he said, adding that he hopes his photography can provide a space for discussion of GLBT athletes and be a mechanism for social change.
Brown, who is featured in the exhibition, feels that the exhibition increases awareness in a historically masculine and homophobic atmosphere.
"A lot of people don't think that LGBT people are, or can be, involved in athletics at all," said Brown.
He added that it was especially important for the photographs to include Dartmouth students.
"It makes the exhibition about people they see everyday instead of just some gay athletes 'out there'," Brown said.
Goldstein, who is also featured and has played lacrosse professionally since graduating from Dartmouth, stressed the perseverance of the athletes featured in the project.
"What unites them is their love for competition, not their sexual orientation," Goldstein said in an e-mail.
Sheng was on campus on Oct. 11 and gave a talk in Collis Common Ground about his project as part of activities surrounding National Coming Out Month. Sheng personally put up his prints in the Collis Student Center and the Alumni Gym, and said that it was thrilling seeing "people in Collis stop for five, 10 minutes and read the names off every photo."
Pam Misener, advisor to GLBT students within the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, which sponsored the exhibition, echoed this sentiment.
"We've received very positive feedback from the students," said Misener. "There's always conversation about how to best support GLBT athletes."
Misener said that she hopes to bring John Amaechi, a retired NBA player who recently revealed his homosexuality and faced derogatory statements and death threats, to speak on campus.
The athletic department has been equally supportive of the exhibition.
"We've gotten rave reviews from students, coaches and even community members", said Meg Hancock, the CHAMPS/Life Skills Coordinator for athletic teams at the College. CHAMPS/Life Skills is a program created to support NCAA student-athletes.
Hancock said that the most important aspect of the exhibition was to show support to athletes that identify with the GLBT community and to highlight the diverse identities of the College's athletes.
The project has been exhibited at numerous universities across the nation, including University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Vassar College and Rice University. This success, however, did not come without hardships, Sheng said, noting that he would call the GLBT directors at colleges to inquire about openly gay athletes and be told there were none.
"At a certain point I hadn't taken any new photographs for eight months," said Sheng, calling the project "an open test to my endurance and patience."
Sheng said that the personal relationship between the athletes and himself was the most crucial and rewarding part of his project.
"I slept on an athletes' couches for three nights, or their roommate's futon from IKEA," he said.
Sheng emphasized that he was grateful for the opportunity photography has given him to explore this topic.
"I'll take the project as far as it can go," Sheng said.
He has plans to publish a book to document his journey, and hopes that the book will be in every major bookstore to maximize exposure to an issue he considers under-recognized.
The exhibition will be on display at the Alumni Gym and the entrance to the Collis Student Center throughout the month of October.