Fearless — that’s what many of the athletes profiled in Los Angeles based photographer Jeff Sheng’s new book are. It’s also the title of the book.
After the Kickstarter campaign to create the project raised $55,237 in 2012, Sheng brought the final product to Canada for the first time to introduce it at PrideHouse Toronto as part of the 2015 Pan Am Games.
Fearless collects all of the portraits Sheng has taken over the last 13 years, highlighting a diverse swath of LGBT athletes from across the United States and Canada. Later this year, two major exhibitions promoting the book will take place in New York City and Los Angeles.
Sheng spoke to Daily Xtra about Fearless and what’s coming next. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Daily Xtra: Can you tell me a little about what made you want to pursue [Fearless]?
Jeff Sheng: So I was a former athlete — very competitive in high school. I played tennis ever since I was eight years old. I wasn’t able to be out in high school. When I went to college and came out, I also quit sports right before then.
When I graduated from college in 2002, I decided to work on a photo project that was about out student athletes who were able to be out on their sports teams in high schools and colleges and be who they are — something that I was never able to do, so it’s a very personal artistic project.
You said it took 13 years — was it difficult to find out athletes willing to be photographed?
Starting the project, it was really hard to find athletes, you know, so I really struggled for the first few years. The first three years of the project I basically photographed almost every athlete that I contacted or contacted me and maybe only photographed two or three dozen athletes. But then in the last two years I’ve photographed 60 athletes. There is a list of dozens of athletes to get photographed.
The book itself, if you have a chance to look at it, chronicles change over time. So there is this beautiful timeline that goes throughout the book that chronicles all the major LGBT history sports events starting from the 1920s, all the way until Caitlyn Jenner comes out. It’s a beautiful testament to change over time.
You have photos of me from my high school tennis years and a recent photo of me wearing the same tennis uniform from 19 years ago, so it’s also my own change as somebody who was in the movement and now working towards making the future better.
Are there any stories from the book that have stayed with you over the 13 years [you’ve worked in it] or that you’ve seen evolve in interesting ways?
One of the things I write about in the book is my experience with trans-identified athletes. For the first few years, I was mostly only photographing openly lesbian, gay or bisexual athletes and then suddenly in 2007 I started meeting trans athletes for the first time. They had so many more challenges and they’ve faced so much more negativity from society and challenges with the sports binary.
I share my own experience, sort of my own growth, about knowing what these challenges were. I think that really it was important for me when I made this book to really recognize the trans athletic community. There are eight different covers of the book. I didn’t want one athlete to represent the entire community — we’re talking about diversity and we’re talking about a range of identities. Not just sexual orientation or gender identity but also sports — how do you represent that? We decided to create eight different covers, each one with a spine matching the original LGBT pride flag from 1978. One of the athletes on the cover — the yellow cover — is an out trans athlete in high school who used to run for girl’s cross country [and] now runs for the boy’s cross country teams.
What’s the plan for you going forward? You’ve been doing this for 13 years; do you want to keep taking more photos or do you have a different project in mind?
No, I’m still photographing. I photographed here in Toronto two days ago, at Ryerson, an out soccer player. We are launching a new blog where we are following up with a lot of the athletes from the project.
The book is just one step. For me, it’s about pushing forward [the athlete’s] stories, you know, really revisiting some of these athletes.
Learn more about Fearless and the athletes featured at fearlessproject.org.