Interview with Photographer Jeff Sheng
By b brian topaz
Thank you for graciously agreeing to be interviewed by sfgam.com.
Your most recent and ongoing Fearless project is a great example of community activism by showcasing photographs of out and proud young athletes in the very schools in which they attend. What was your inspiration for this project? Were you or someone you knew involved in high school or college sports as an out (or closeted) athlete?
My inspiration for the project was mainly based from my own experience as a very closeted athlete. I played competitive tennis as a junior since I was 7 years old and tennis was a large part of my identity growing up. I was incredibly closeted about my gay identity through high school, and being an athlete had a lot to do with this. It wasn't until college, when I was at Harvard University, after I had quit playing the sport, did I finally begin to allow myself to accept my sexuality. Incidentally, during this time, my first relationship with another guy happened to be with someone on the water polo team who was also very closeted. We were in a relationship for about 6 months, and then broke up, and many of our problems came from the fact that I was coming out and was more visible than he was. He actually eventually came out two years later to his team, and they not only accepted him, but voted him to be the team captain for his senior year.
I was a Film and Photography major at Harvard, and I decided that my first project after graduating in 2002 would be about openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes who are "out" to their high school and college sports teams. I first began photographing athletes in 2003, and have kept working on it ever since.
What are other examples in your life – past, present and future – of community activism involving the LGBTQ community or otherwise?
My decision to be a film and photography major at Harvard was in many ways due to my realization that media and activist art could be used to affect change in our society. I actually started off as a history and economics major and was planning to go to law school after graduation, but changed my mind after taking courses with some of the film and photography professors at Harvard, who had instilled in me the idea that I could do meaningful artistic work that could be used to advocate for certain causes and change people's minds about issues - similar to what a lawyer does.
I am currently a lecturer/adjunct professor at UCSB where I teach courses in photography and also Asian American studies, and one of my academic courses is a class on Asian American Queer Issues, so I also work closely with a lot of the student activists on campus.
My art practice and career is also very much situated around activism -- my panoramics project explores history and identity and my newest photographic art endeavor is about closeted and discharged men and women in the military due to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I'm also working on a calendar right now benefiting the Asian Pacific Health Care Venture in Los Angeles, where it’s going to be an Asian American Male pin-up calendar: think Abercrombie and Fitch but with hot Asian guys (mostly straight-identified but some of our models are also openly gay). Even though this calendar is for charity and mainly for fun, I am hoping that the images raise awareness of the lack of visible Asian American men in media and society.
Thank you for your candor about your own experience as a closeted athlete, and for your important work benefitting the gay and Asian American communities. So, can you tell us a little about the Supreme Court hearing that was held March 5th and how you were involved?
I helped support and encourage a few of my students at UCSB who wanted to organize a large presence at the CA Supreme Court during the hearing on March 5th. They knew that there were organizations working on events for the evening of March 4th, but not much organization surrounding the actual courthouse in SF on the 5th, so they asked for my help and I did my best to educate them and assist in any way possible to help them get as many people as possible to the CA Supreme Court on March 5. It was really wonderful watching these incredibly energetic teenage activists rally up the younger generation, and I felt fortunate to be in a position to help inspire them.
While many think of me as a photographer and artist, a lot of my research is academic in nature and has actually focused on protests and movements particularly of the LGBT community from the 1960s to the present. On a side note, I actually chose to attend the MFA (masters of fine arts) program in studio art from UC Irvine because of the faculty there in the studio art department, many of whom are LGBT identified and were also part of ACT-UP and the earlier protests involving the Briggs initiative here in California. Many of them were instrumental in the "identity politics" art movement in the 1980's, playing the combo role of artist and activist, and I draw a lot of my learning and experiences from them. So ironically, my Masters education in "art" was also training in LGBT activism and People of Color movements -- and learning how to use art, performance, and one's self to create societal change.
One of my observations of the LGBT community is that we seem to have become very focused on law and legislation as the primary way to promote and ensure our equality -- but in doing so, I think we've created a mentality that the only people who can enact change are our trained lawyers and legislators. A powerful book that I assign my students is Kenji Yoshino's "Covering." I think the conclusion of the book and the thesis made by Yoshino, the Constitutional Law Professor at Yale Law School -- that law can't be used and relied upon at all times to enact all the change we need -- is incredibly powerful and inspiring, and something we need to really think about as a community.
In the case of March 5th, we needed both our lawyers inside arguing to invalidate Prop 8 to the Supreme Court, but we also needed as many of our supporters outside the courthouse as well. We needed to be visible and "real people" to the judges -- the idea is not incredibly groundbreaking (think Stonewall, Milk, Briggs, Act-Up) -- but I guess I just wanted to make sure that this happened... so I encouraged my students to mobilize around getting as many people as possible to SF on the 5th.
Perhaps much of my activist spirit is also derived from being an Asian American male, where the stereotype and underlying societal pressure is for me to be silent, both vocally and also visually (think of the absence of Asian American male bodies and figures in American culture) -- and I've always wondered if this was one of the main causes of my incredible need to be heard, both vocally and visually (think of the scale and 'presence' of my artwork)
I really admire your resolve and intelligent assessment of the diverse ways in which progressive change will most effectively come about, and very much appreciate your organizing efforts.
Now, let’s talk a little bit about some of your panoramic work. I have always been fascinated by panoramic photographs such as those in your ongoing Revolutions of Memory project. (The most recent example of where this type of photography where hundreds of images are combined into one was done effectively at the moment of President Obama’s Inauguration.) One of your more powerful images is Where Matthew Lay Dying – a panoramic photograph of the site where gay hate-crime victim Matthew Sheppard was tied to a fence post and later died– made all the more poignant by your decision to photograph the scene from Matthew’s perspective and thus empowering him and not the perpetrators. Like Matthew, you were a young gay college student when this happened. How did this horrific crime personally affect you? And, what was it like to make the pilgrimage to the actual site in Laramie, Wyoming nine years later? Did you go into town and talk to any locals?
To be quite honest, I was incredibly closeted during the incident and I tried not to pay any attention to it. It was during my first month in college as a freshman, and I tried to ignore the news reports of what was happening. I had been invited to a few vigils and protests, but I just didn't want to be involved with anything to do with anything gay-related at the time - and it may have pushed me deeper into the closet for a little bit. For anyone who has ever been deeply closeted, I don't think this reaction is quite unique. It wasn't until I came out a few months later did I finally begin to digest the evil that the incident represents. It had always carried a double guilt for me: the guilt of my inability to feel emotion at the time of his death and my own weakness in not even being able to acknowledge my own closeted identity to be able to see that the issue was not just a gay one, but a crime to all humanity, gay or straight -- it wasn't a "gay" thing to show sadness over his death, just the appropriate human response.
It's probably why in graduate school I felt that it was absolutely necessary to visit the spot where he was fatally attacked… almost a revisiting of my past – or rather a benchmark in my own self-discovery. The whole trip was both completely disturbing and wonderful at the same time. The town of Laramie also seems to want to get rid of their past association with Matthew... like a community forgetting... but I don't know if I would want my hometown to be known for a famous lynching either so I can't necessarily blame the residents for having that desire to move on. I spent maybe only 36 hours in Laramie... I walked around the college a bit, visited the bar - or what used to be the bar - where he met his attackers, and then drove back to Los Angeles. In many ways, I felt like a complete foreigner there, both being a non-white person and also someone who was there as a gay person exploring a part of the city's past that most seemed to want to forget.
Thank you for your candor. I think many people, myself included, gay and Asian American, can identify with being closeted at some point in our lives and the difficulty, often agony that this time represents.
On to more technical aspects of your panoramic work, it was interesting that you chose to digitally insert the 1970 “Come Out!” poster into your 2005 Stonewall photograph. Photographers have been known to alter lighting and pose their subjects, and most recently, use computers to create an effect. Having used today’s technology with the likes of Photoshop, what would you say to photo purists or realists who would object to this as distorting “the truth?”
The first notion of "the truth" I would like to dispel is the idea that photography is one "truth," and when I say this, I also want to add that photography -- like life, like history, like our retold experiences, are all made up, and hence representational of many versions of "truth." And ironically, these conflicting "truths" would make the end product false. My panoramic series deals with this: that when we look at our history and our experiences, we like to think of them as being constructed as "one truth," and in doing so, we construct this notion of being able to see everything all at once. The photo panoramic then is my way of representing this false vantage point, that 380 degree vantage points (what the panoramics are), are impossible human eye perspectives. Yet we are seduced by them. It is perhaps this very same seduction when we try to write history as one overarching history.
Stonewall is a great example. That we as LGBT people have been trained to proudly imagine this as the "birthplace" of LGBT rights, yet many in the community do this without a deep examination of what the implications of writing that history really means. What does it say for us as a community when those that fought the hardest and bravest during Stonewall - drag queens and trans-identified people of color - are the ones that we as a community are quickest to render invisible or exclude from legislation in cases such as the federal employment non-discrimination act (ENDA)? How did we erase those brave individuals from the way most LGBT people think about Stonewall? One would think that our so-called heroes in the birthplace of our movement would be those currently most celebrated and protected -- and have the most leadership roles in our current LGBT organizations... yet this isn't the case at all. Again, I ask, how does one "truth" colonize and erase another "truth?"
Going back to photography, I treat the medium as a tool to express myself and my ideas, but visually. In doing so, I use all the tools available to me, but I'm also careful not to go overboard, and that my actions serve a purpose. I was once asked how much I Photoshop the athletes in "Fearless" and the answer is never. That if my goal with "Fearless" is to show real people and their real bodies, why would I Photoshop them? I may use Photoshop to take out something distracting from the background, but I won't do what all these fashion magazines now do with model's images: i.e., take off 10 pounds, brighten eyes, etc.
I guess then in saying all of this, I don't believe in "the truth" very much.
While we are discussing “the truth,” another fascinating piece in your panoramic project is Qingdao, China: The Fantasy of a Chinese Wedding, 2005 where Chinese couples dress up in Western-style wedding-wear – days , months and even a year after their actual marriage to stage pictures of their wedding in a scenic area of Qingdao. There is a lot of irony there, even too much to discuss fully here.
Is traditional Chinese culture in danger when there is such a desire to emulate the West?
Yes. Well, unfortunately this goes with the whole world, and I think it’s gotten to a point where I don't believe that we can rely on a "foreign" culture or country to challenge Western hegemony.... that is, in our current globalized world, everyone has a desire to emulate the West (with perhaps a few Middle Eastern countries as the only real examples I can think of -- and ironically those very countries are the ones that are most demonized and the ones the US threatens with war)
On a more optimistic level, I do believe that challenges to Western hegemony are now coming from within, that as countries expand, and people are educated, and that the evils of Western colonization are made more known, countries, including groups in the US, will be less quick to eradicate the richness of cultures from previous times. Again though, this is my optimistic side speaking.
And you are right; the irony is incredible, on so many levels.
I will add to this, my reflections about a "Yes on 8" editorial that I read in the LA Times right before the November 2008 election. In this editorial, the writer argued against same-sex marriage, using the claim that a monogamous marriage between one man and one woman has been the foundation of human civilization. I thought this was the most outrageous and most culturally offensive statement I had read in years. Truthfully, in the 4000 or so human cultures documented throughout history, a majority is actually either polygamous or non-monogamous, and to assume that our current limited Western notion of marriage is the "foundation of human civilization" was both preposterous and highly offensive. Then again, this author probably doesn't believe in evolution or real science either (and probably shouldn't be allowed to write editorials for a credible newspaper).
You’re probably right about that. Ignorance in some people tends to be the only well-rounded feature about them.
What place does artifice play in your art? For example, for your Thesis Album (2000-2002) you cite Nan Goldin whose photographs inspired the photographs in the lesbian drama High Art – as one end of a spectrum of influence where her work was a stark and truthful “personal documentary.” On the other end of the spectrum is Cindy Sherman whose mostly self-portraits are fabricated, though often revealing, images of her dressed up in the likes of film-noir actresses.
If Thesis Album is somewhere in between, is this where you find yourself most comfortable in this stage of your career? Do you think you would ever find yourself at either end of the spectrum?
I have actually never considered Nan Goldin's work very truthful in an honest sense... one of my favorite photographs from her work is her "One month after being battered" self-portrait, because of the incredible tension between both reality and theatricality. That indeed, she was battered and a victim of domestic violence, yet the image is also very much a performative piece in the way it said to be taken a month after the event, and also with a looking directly back toward the viewer with a sense of defiance - and a subsequent knowledge that the image would be published alongside multiple images of the perpetrator of the violence. I always found the actual photographic image, Goldin's set-up of it, promotion, and the performative nature of the whole thing, so genius. Don't misunderstand me, Goldin's influence on me is profound and I respect her incredibly -- but I have come to understand her work as ultimately a fictional representation or rather, one that can't accurately represent everything.
You actually have my thoughts on fabrication and truth backwards in regards to Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman. It’s reversed: I think that while Cindy Sherman's portraits are fabricated, they actually speak more on reality. She emulated what society expected of our ideal of the pre-feminist "woman." Part of the reason I feel that her portraits were so well-regarded in the art world, was because while they were "fake," they actually cut right to the core of our society's expectations. They spoke to the truth of our culture's legacy of only seeing women as victims, hysterical creatures, secretaries, divas, dragon-ladies, librarians but not bosses... etc. The mirror that Sherman's imagery gave us in regards to "truth" was incredibly powerful, especially since the pictures themselves were "fake."
After saying all this, "Thesis Album" is actually quite complicated. It's a body of work I'm incredibly proud of. After completing it for my senior thesis at Harvard, there were a lot of people in the art world who thought that it should have been published, and for some reason I resisted this. I think a major reason is because I knew that it is a more complex body of work than many will immediately give it credit for. in fact, it’s probably the basis for all my current work, and provides deep insight when looking at "Fearless" and "Revolutions of Memory." In fact, my plans are actually to publish the album maybe mid-career, in a few years, perhaps after my other projects are completed and much more cemented in people's conception of my work. Much of this is because I'm hoping that this will allow people to look at the album more in terms of things such as representation, race, identity, truth, beauty, activism, "realness," -- and perhaps my biggest fear in publishing "Thesis Album" when I was 21 years old, would that people would just think the work was all about celebrating hot white male bodies -- which it isn't.
In my thesis review defense, I highlighted the fact that all of the photographs were of one person who I was in a long term committed relationship with, and that none of the pictures were set-up, yet I didn't consider the images to be real documentary. I also had the images in an album, an object that we use to celebrate moments in our lives and are used mostly with personal snapshots -- yet I also thought many of the images could also double as fashion/commercial portraits and I enlarged some of these images to billboard size along with the album. There was also a complicated analysis of self and self-portraiture: I commented on the slippery slope of wanting to be with and wanting to be, and the dangers of hegemonic masculinity in mixed-race gay couples... it was definitely a tough thesis review, but I wound up getting the highest possible Latin marks on it and a copy is archived in the Harvard library as one of the well-regarded thesis done there for the department of Visual and Environmental studies. Go figure.
That is quite an achievement for which you should rightfully be proud. To clarify however, when you say that those”images could also double as fashion/commercial portraits” this reminds me that in a review for the Boston Globe, Cate McQuaid commented about your Thesis Album, writing that it had a “commercial look of fashion and advertising images of ‘beautiful people’ [i.e. Calvin Klein/Abercrombie & Fitch/Ralph Lauren] that represent ‘idealized beauty’ for our youth-loving culture. Fantasy, image and illusion become intertwined in this glossy world of exhibitionism.” You have also mentioned Abercrombie & Fitch when discussing your Thesis Album. Are you interested in working in commercial photography?
Immediately after graduating, my undergrad thesis advisor Chris Killip thought I should just move to NYC or London and become a fashion photographer. I resisted this idea though, and even after interning/assisting for Greg Gorman in LA, I still didn't really want to be only a commercial photographer. Part of this is because I didn't want to only be known for being someone who only shoots fashion – and perhaps some of the backlash from the "beauty" part of Thesis Album made me want to prove to others that I could be a photographer/artist with "substance." I spent a few years battling the stereotype that I was a photographer who was only good at photographing beautiful people. In fact, I think it haunted my graduate school experience a bit... and in many ways, it’s probably why "Fearless" is shot the way it is… a much more direct, straight type of portraiture project, where I photograph everyone who volunteers and don't attempt to sexualize and beautify the body too extremely.
Ironically, I think after five years of running away from being a commercial photographer, I'm now getting back into it full-heartedly. I oftentimes tell my students that fashion photography is not that much harder than art-based projects. I compare how with "Fearless" I've had to fly across the country multiple times with a limited amount of lighting equipment, no makeup artist or stylist, meet a teenager who is terrified and nervous and has never been in a photograph before, and try to make an interesting portrait that deals with sports... where with fashion, you have a professional model who is gorgeous, has 0% body fat, knows what he or she is doing, a makeup artist and maybe a $20,000 lighting set-up. It's far easier to get a good looking picture in scenario two. In fact, shooting fashion and commercial work right now is just much easier compared to a lot of the art-based projects I've worked on.
I did finally open up my commercial studio a few months ago in LA, and my assistant and I have been shooting a lot of tests for models. We've been working a lot recently with Claudia Charriez from America's Next Top Model, and the images we're making for her portfolio are just stunning. In hindsight, I think a big reason why I resisted shooting fashion before was because I was afraid of getting addicted to it, hence preventing me from rounding out my art education... and I can easily see myself getting sucked into shooting commercially too much.
The balance struck between pure art, integrity, and making a living is something artists have struggled with since the beginning. It’s good to know that you have found some middle ground.
You have worked with many notable people in the academic and photography world, including Bill Hunt, Chris Killip, Elinor Carucci, and Greg Gorman (who has photographed celebrities including Jimi Hendrix, Ben Affleck & Penelope Cruz).
What kind of influence have they had on you? What type of advice, if any, did they give, and has it been helpful?
Professor Chris Killip is probably the biggest influence on my career. He's the only person right now who I still have look at every picture I take for "Fearless" because I still learn a lot from his teaching and editing advice. I would probably be a lawyer today if it weren't for him, and his consistent mentorship and support of my photography abilities has lasted over a decade. Bill Hunt is probably second to him in terms of influence, having mentored my career after I left Harvard and moved to NYC in 2002. The biggest thing that these two figures in photography have taught me is to ultimately believe in my abilities and myself. I never really think I'm that talented, and it’s still weird to hear someone say that about me, especially people in the field who have so much influence and clout. It took a long time for me to really "own" my so-called talent and to really push myself to become the photographer and artist I am right now.
Other than Photography, you also teach courses such as Asian American Queer Issues and the Asian American Male Identity. What specific topics do you discuss and how dynamic is the interaction with and amongst the students?
These are some of my favorite classes to teach! In my Asian American Masculinities course, we look at the ways in which Asian Male masculinity has been marginalized in the Western world, and I draw links to how misogyny and homophobia works, and challenge my students to think about the intersectionality of gender, race and hierarchy in our society.
My Asian American Queer Issues course is essentially a class on LGBT history and contemporary gay issues but viewed from an Asian American/Queer Person of Color perspective. The classes are upper division Asian American studies courses, and have a good mix of LGBT and straight students, and both students of color and white students - about 40 students per class, and I teach these two courses once a year at UCSB. The students seem to enjoy the courses as I often get students who will take one class and then sign up for the other one with me the following year.
It is encouraging that we live in an age in which we can integrate our sexuality creatively and productively into our lives and careers.
You honor a memory of your grandfather in Hangzhou, China : My Grandfather’s Memory of his Childhood. How has your family been affected by your apparent decision to come out at an early age and then integrate your sexuality into your art?
In college, my family's main concern was the fact that I wanted to be an artist and a photographer -- and that this was what I majored in at Harvard. I also think because they are immigrants, they very much valued stability -- and as we all know, being an artist is probably the least stable career path one can choose. It took awhile for them to accept the artist thing, but I think when I got my teaching job at a University, they were very proud of me.
In terms of the sexuality part, my mother's main concern is my safety. I actually don't talk about my work that much anymore since it worries her when I travel everywhere and speak in places and states that she couldn't locate on a map - and much of their conception of the United States is what they encountered when they first came here in the 1970's: a very conservative, white nation that could be (and in many ways still is) a dangerous place for a queer person of color. My parents are also incredibly private people, and they've never understood my very public persona, or rather, my willingness to pursue what some may think is a very controversial career that very much puts me in the public eye.
I can relate very much with both the parental stable career worries and the general over-protectiveness you talk about. I think this is especially true of Asian Immigrant parents in America. Besides the goal of relieving in their own minds the built-in worry and responsibility toward their children, parents ultimately want you to be financially stable, safe, and happy.
Towards that end, my readers would not forgive me if I did not ask.
Are you married, in a civil union, seeing someone, playing the field, or celibate as the Dalai Lama?
I'm as single as can be! I'm too much of a dork to adequately play the field right, and I'm also very much a romantic at heart. Any takers? Just kidding, but sort of not. :)
There you have it guys!
So, when can we see you in San Francisco, either officially or unofficially?
I seem to be in SF at least once every month or so... I'm playing tennis in the US Gay Open during Memorial Day Weekend at Stanford University, and I'm sure I'll be up in the Castro one of those days that weekend. I'm also going to be photographing Yul, the winner from Survivor, for the Asian Male Charity Calendar that I'm photographing, and the shoot is supposed to be in the Bay Area sometime in May. I also get booked for various shows and speaking engagements a lot in the SF area, so I'll probably be there sooner than I think.
Great! We look forward to seeing you!
Lastly, what type of legacy would you like to leave on either the art world or the world in general?
I would be lying if I said that I didn't want to become one of the most important and famous American artists/photographers in my generation. At the same time, I would also like a very serious career as an activist, maybe even running for political office at some point in my life. I'm a big visionary and very ambitious, but I do it all with a very strong ethic of hard work.
We look forward to hearing your name more and more often both in the art world and in the leadership arena. We do need more career artists and activists as leaders.
Again, thank you for your time and willingness to answer our questions. We feel very fortunate in getting to hear your ideas about art and life, as well as just getting to know you.
Jeff Sheng's website - www.jeffsheng.com