LGBTQ athletes pose as subjects for the Fearless Project


By Chelsea Cabral, Staff Writer

On Wednesday, October 12, the library’s Grand Reading Room hosted photographer Jeff Sheng’s exhibition called the Fearless Project.

Using images as his visual medium, Sheng’s project offered an exploration into the struggles and hopes of LGBTQ athletes as a means of generating social change and awareness.

In celebration of LGBTQ History Month, the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality invited Sheng, an interdisciplinary doctoral candidate, to discuss his photography project, which featured photos of over 200 openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender high school and college athletes from across the United States and Canada.

Beginning in 2003, Sheng began photographing athletes to showcase how people of the LGBTQ community are present in all areas of the world.

Sheng’s personal life created the spark that got the Fearless Project rolling. Sheng, a gay man, played and excelled in tennis during high school and advanced to the collegiate level at Harvard.

However, in the process of coming out during college, he quit the tennis team due to the homophobia he observed in athletics at the time.

This project poses as an artistic self-exploration into Sheng’s identity as a previously closeted athlete in predominately straight athletic teams.

“This project started off being incredibly organic,” Sheng says. “There’s a very personal element to photography, and I thought pictures could be used to speak about someone’s condition and personal stance in the world.”

The series features subjects photographed instantly after an extreme workout or practice, in a location of their choice where they feel most comfortable as an athlete. Sheng chose to begin exhibiting the photos in non-traditional art venues, such as student centers and campus athletic facilities, hoping to inspire an otherwise non-art-going community to view and reflect upon the images being presented to them.

“It’s not about what you can see—it’s about what you can’t see,” says Sheng. “The context or story behind the photograph is what makes it important… I wanted to use photography to create and spark dialogue.”

Sheng’s work has been showcased in more than 450 venues, most notably at the headquarters of ESPN and Nike, and has grabbed the attention of the media such as the New York Times, NPR, and the LA Times.

With the tremendous attention and exposure the Fearless Project has received, more athletes from different walks of life have started approaching Sheng to volunteer to pose.

For the subjects of the project, being photographed serves as an expression of pride and even an emotional release.

“It was through this project that I begin to see the interests I had on the intersections between gender, race, and sexuality,” Sheng says. “It gave me an incredible stance on society and the LGBT community as a whole.”

Sheng’s photo series has even gone to publishing a commemorative photography book, featuring all athletes he’s photographed since the project’s initiation, complete with an afterward by retired NBA star Jason Collins.

“It’s all about inclusivity, and I wanted everyone featured in the book,” says Sheng. “I’ve learned that there’s so much that can go behind just pictures.”

Sheng’s hope with this project is that it will help do justice to other underrepresented groups, and that one day all athletes in high school or college may feel as comfortable as the young athletes photographed by Sheng, proudly voicing their sexuality and who they are with the world.

Photo Courtesy: Chelsea Cabral


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