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Freedom through photography

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



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"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.