One of the most vivid memories I have as a little girl is sitting in my living room watching a recruitment commercial for the United States Marine Corps. Strong men and women standing tall, proud, decked out in gold medals and multicolored ribbons; they seemed larger than life itself. Their faces were unwavering. Their stare could terrify death itself, and when the holidays came around, Santa trusted them, so I could, too. When they took out their NCO swords and raised them in unison, they chased away every concern I had for monsters hiding in my closet. I could sleep soundly with the lights out. They were above all reproach. Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Superwoman, I never needed them. I didn’t want them. My heroes were in our military.
Now, as an adult, it pains me to hear there are service members who feel they need to hide in a similar proverbial closet. With the complete and total appeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy just over the horizon, California artist Jeff Sheng aims to capture this unprecedented moment in our culture and immortalize it for generations to come. By stating what cannot be said in words and describing that which can only be defined with photographs, Sheng has created the first photo book on the market that features hidden faces of closeted service members that are affected by laws ordering the discharge of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-identified members of our United States military. Simply titled, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Sheng traversed over 30,000 miles across the country to deliver 20 stunningly beautiful portraits that reek with sadness, frustration and longing.
First recognized for his positive and ground-breaking work, titled “Fearless,” a compilation of portraits of out-and-proud gay, lesbian and bisexual athletes in high school and college, Sheng has never hidden from controversy.
“My projects start out where I think about something for a while, and I make sure I enter with care, sincerity and respect,” he notes. “‘Fearless’ had a lot of publicity in ‘07 and ’08. I received e-mails from closet service members serving overseas, [who were] thanking me for the work. They saw a portion of themselves in the photos. These athletes were proud of their identities and those service members wanted to be, too. In early 2009 I e-mailed the same service members back. I asked if they would be interested in my new photo project.”
Soon after, word about the project spread quickly. By the end of 2009, Sheng photographed 18 service members, many of whom just returned from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. By September 2010 he had his first exhibition of the work. Over 60 service members volunteered and came to view the powerful portraits.
“It was really this gift people gave me with their image and name,” he shares. “Seeing the unfairness upon these really brave men and women serving our country was the hardest part in making the photo book.”
The impact of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Volume 1” soon led into a second edition, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Volume 2.” Completely self-funded and self-published, both volumes list names beside each service member that either symbolizes those who mean a lot to them or a place of great significance in their lives. The ultimate goal for Sheng’s photography is not to kindle another fire around the already explosive national debate; rather, it’s to capture a part of history in photography that marks the hopeful end of discrimination across the board. It won’t be until this ideal day that Sheng plans to release the final volume in the series, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Vol. 3.” This edition differs in a significant way—the faces of service members will finally be in focus.
“People are free to express their opinions [about the books], but I think when people see the images they’ll see beautiful pictures,” Sheng says. “Photographs are louder than words. When we look back, 10, 20 years from now, we’ll appreciate them as a culture. Of course, you want everyone (in the military) to do the best of their job, but it’s a disservice to ask them to spend their energy hiding who they are. It’s also a disservice to the person serving beside them to be lied to. I do believe the military has validity in their concerns, but the way they approach their concern is the wrong solution. Everyone is created differently. You can’t be separate but also equal. That has been the mantra I live my own life by.”
Sheng’s cathartic work expresses beauty through each photograph, all of which cast a lasting impression. He teaches us that in the end, superheroes don’t have prejudices. Nor should we toward our real-life heroes whose protection for our country should serve as the real matter at heart.
To purchase or view more of Jeff Sheng’s work visit, www.jeffsheng.com or his Facebook page. Sheng offers a military discount for each volume.