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Freedom through photography

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

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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 theĀ Fearless Campus Tour.

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