Home » Becoming Fearless: Jeff Sheng at TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)

Becoming Fearless: Jeff Sheng at TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)


What was the last photograph you took? Think for a few seconds now. I want all of you to think about the last photograph you took. Where were you? Who were you with? Why did you take it? What did you do with it after you took the photograph? And then I want you to think about the answer to this question which is what was the power of that photograph after you took it? This was a question that was posed to me almost 20 years ago in the first photography class I ever took.

I was working on a project about city landscapes and walls. And the professor looked at my contact sheet and said, “Jeff, you are very artistic. You’ve got a great sense of style, but your images lack a depth. You are failing to see what the true power of photography can be.” It’s taken me over 15 years since then to really understand what he was talking about that day, and today I’m going to share with you five things that I’ve learned about the power of photography.

I’m going to actually start by walking you through a couple of projects. This one is one I started in 2003 about 13 years ago. I want you to go back to the early 2000s and think what it might be like to be in high school. I want you to think about what it might be like to be an athlete, but then I want you to think about what it would be like to be openly gay and to have a sexual orientation that is often not compatible with those that we think of who play sports. Or to be lesbian or bisexual and to know that if you came out you would be ostracized from your circle of your friends, family, and even your community. Or to be transgender, and you simply want to play on the team that you most identify with in terms of your gender identity, but to not be able to because of blatant discrimination in our society.

These are the faces of young people that I met over the course of 13 years, for a project I simply called “Fearless”, a photo series on out LGBT student athletes on high school and college sports teams. These were young people that I had the chance to meet; I photographed over about 200 of them. In the middle 2000s, I’ve started to exhibit their photographs at different exhibition venues across the United States, and actually some shows that were also international. The most striking thing that was said to me were when parents would stop me, and they would say, “Mr. Sheng, I need to tell you something. Your photographs are so haunting because they remind me of my children. And even though I don’t have anyone in my family who I believe identifies as gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, I can’t help but see the faces of someone I know in your images.”

This was the first lesson that I learned about the power of photography which was that photography can take what is unfamiliar and make it familiar. It can bridge stereotypes because of the way it can bring humanity right in front of our faces that when you look into the eyes of someone else’s portraits, you cannot help but try to want to find something in common with that person. And when you do, you begin to realize how close they are to the ones you love, the ones in your own family.

A lot people often ask me too, “Why did you start this project?” The secret is that, I myself was a closeted athlete in high school. I played tennis from a very young age, but unlike these people, I did not have the courage to come out until much later after I had quit competitive sports. I started this project in many ways to bring visibility to a group of people that I came to respect and admire.

And the second lesson about the power of photography that I learned was that it became an incredible tool to celebrate others; that instead of this project being about me and what I could or could not do, or about my image, it became about other people; other people that I saw as heroic, and people that I wanted to bring in front of others to inspire them. I think we often forget that photography has that ability.

Another lesson I learned about photography actually came from a completely different photo series. It was also of the LGBT community, but unlike the pictures you are seeing here, stylistically they are very different. They were of people in the military, and I photographed this series between 2009 and 2011. At a time in which the laws known as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” were in place, which basically meant that for decades our military and our government had a policy where if you were out about an LGBT identity, you could and should be fired from the military. And that was basically the law for many, many years.

In 2009, I decided to start this photo series documenting these service members. Image yourself doing three tours of Iraq and Afghanistan like this person here, and at the last tour that you’ve done your face’s almost blown off, and your friends have died in an IED explosion around you. And then when you return to this country, you must hide your face in a project like this, because if you actually showed who you were, the military would have you removed from your job. Imagine being in love with somebody for almost 20 years, like this couple; patriotically serving your country, but then never being able to bring your partner to any work function whatsoever, because if you did, you would lose your pension, your livelihood, and your job. These were the people I encountered; over 80 of them, between 2009 and 2011.

The lesson I learned here shocked me because even though you couldn’t see their faces, I learned that photography has this incredible power to transmit emotion; it can provoke feeling and stir up the deepest part of our souls because we know what they must be going through even though we can’t actually see who they are; that we can feel their anguish, their bravery, what it must be like to shot someone in war, to worry about losing a loved one, or the sadness that comes from just not being able to show who you are, your true identity, and the possibility of hope that one day you can.

One of the greatest achievements for the LGBT community came a few years ago, at the end of 2011, when the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policies were finally repealed. I decided a few years ago to actually revisit some of the service members that I photographed. I started to take portraits with their faces showing. So a photograph that I took in 2010, I could come back in 2015, and take this. And by doing this, I realized the fourth power that photography had which is it has the unbelievable ability to be the testament for change. With such simple strokes as just one or two images, you can see decades of social achievement of our ability to learn; that in just two pictures you could see a couple who in 2010, had to hide like this but finally, they could be like this five years later.

The last thing I learned about photography is what I considered to be the greatest gift that has given me. I’ve been given the opportunity to photograph over 300 different individuals over the past decade for my different projects, and one of the things this has taught me is that when I show up for a photo shoot, because of my schedule, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever meet that person ever again. You arrive, and you get maybe an hour or two with them. And so, whenever I go to a photo shoot, I take that moment with such care.

This photograph was taken in 2011, just five years ago. And like all my pictures, I can remember the day it was taken. I can remember a lot of detail in it. This was a photograph of Alyssa Sialaris, who in 2011, was an all-American athlete – track & field, and volleyball, at Whittier College in Southern California. I remember meeting her, I remember looking through my viewfinder, and it was one of those beautiful southern California days, when the light, in the afternoon, just kind dances across the field. I looked through my camera, and I saw someone who stared back at me with such intensity and with such beauty that I could not help but think, “My goodness, I want to hold on to this moment with you and share it forever with other people. Tragically, Alyssa passed away less than a year after this photo was taken.

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