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Freedom through photography

Jeff Sheng's Fearless exhibition opens the door to LGBT athletic community

Photographs can have real power; they can be so powerful and emotional, in fact, that they can transform our own perceptions, preconceptions, and even our misconceptions.

At least that's vision behind Jeff Sheng's Fearless exhibition.

Sheng received a BA from Harvard and a MFA from University of California before deciding on a career in photography, using the medium as a powerful tool for activism.

"I realized that the power of photography is one of those things that's truly something people should take seriously as a medium of expression," Sheng said.

Also a former athlete, Sheng had played junior tennis competitively, and knew just how hard it could be to be closeted in the world of sport.

"So the idea of competitive sports was something that I was very much used to and around a lot. I decided to quit playing at the beginning of college and part of it was I wasn't 'out' at all yet, and I chose basically to have some distance from sports for a little bit of time as I kind of began my coming out process."

The idea for s grew through his college years, after Sheng realized that no one had successfully explored the world of LGBT athletes. But he didn't pursue the concept until after graduation.

"I had friends and knew people who were also either closeted athletes or had been former athletes. And in photography you always try to do projects in ways that are meaningful to yourself and are projects that other people haven't done yet."

In 2003, he launched this photography project, which he dubbed Fearless.

"I had originally thought the project would be done in two or three years, and have maybe 20 or 30 athletes, but when I looked at the project at 20 or 25 athletes, it didn't feel complete; it didn't feel like it was wholly representative of the community in the way that I wanted it to be."

Some sports and races weren't represented and there weren't even enough body types for Sheng's liking. So he continued to grow the project.

"The photographs, for me, are done in a way that are authentic and have a lot of integrity; they don't play upon the stereotypical imagery that surrounds the gay community sometimes."

For the first four years, the project received very little media attention. By 2008, the series featured over 60 athletes.

"Most of the time when you exhibit work, you do it when it's finished."

But schools had started to ask Sheng to bring his growing collection to their students. Three years after the project started, he began the Fearless Campus Tour.

"The shows were incredibly successful and what I discovered was that the portraits showed athletes, mostly straight athletes, that their teammates and their friends look just like those people in these portraits," Sheng said.

"There was this way in which there was this connection made between the public and these images of a community that, to many people, had never been fully represented in this way before, in this way that was visually accessible."

He had straight mothers coming up to him at shows, shocked to discover that some of the subjects resembled their own sons or daughters.

"Gay people look just like straight people; there is no real differece," Sheng said. "I wanted to use photography to bring that to the public."

Today, Sheng's collection of powerful portraits has grown to include more than 100 athletes from across North America. The show has visited more than 40 colleges and high schools, ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, and the 2009 International LGBT Human Rights conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is being exhibited in Canada for the first time during the 2010 Olympic Games, at PRIDE House in Whistler's Pan Pacific Hotel.

GayWhistler organizers have partnered with St. Paul's Hospital Foundation on the project, which is aimed at raising awareness of the triumphs and challenges of the gay community in sport. Sheng has done this by documenting high school and college athletes who openly self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered and are "out" to their predominantly straight teammates and coaches.

"Having the project exhibited, at PRIDE House represented a milestone to me and I wanted to mark it, but I didn't want to necessarily end the project there," Sheng said.

The project is now entering a second phase, which will see a book created.

Overwhelmingly, the concept has been embraced not only by the LGBT community, but straight audiences, as well.

"Many of the compliments came from straight athletes who said, 'there's a teammate of mine who is in the closet and I just want to let you know how much you've helped that person out.'"

Finding the initial subjects to photograph was a bit of a challenge, as he had to find people that trusted his artistic vision. But once he had found the first few subjects many more started approaching him, asking to be photographed.

Adam Tittley is one of Sheng's most recent subjects, part of a series of 14 portraits of Canadian LGBT athletes he has shot.

A 24-year-old from Montreal, Quebec, Tittley only recently moved to British Columbia, but he had the chance to attend Whistler's gay ski week, WinterPride, last year.

"I loved it; it was the first time in my life that I felt completely normal and at ease anywhere that I went."

Tittley was added to the GayWhistler mailing list from that event and a few months later, received a notice about Sheng's project. Tittley, a former water polo player, didn't have to think twice about volunteering to be photographed.

"All the while while I was playing water polo I was closeted, and I always had to hide who I really was," Tittley explained. "Then, by the time I came out of the closet, I wasn't playing water polo anymore, so it was kind of two completely different parts of my life. This was my chance to bring them together.

"With everything that I went through in the coming-out process - it's tough - and I always told myself that, 'with everything I'm going through, if I can just help one person realize that it's okay to be who you are, to be an athlete, to be gay,' then it would be all worth it."