Father Tony

Better Know a Contributor: Jeff Sheng

Filed By Father Tony | April 04, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Site News
Tags: Bilerico contributors, Jeff Sheng, photography

The Bilerico contributors are an ever-expanding group of fascinators. You can learn some basics about each member of that family by reading the profiles, but our semi-regular "Better Know a Contributor" series lets you sit down and catch up with them one at a time.

I called upon Bilerico newbie, Jeff Sheng, with some questions about photography, and about a course he teaches called Masculinities.

His statements about what constitutes "photography" in the context of my listing a variety of well-known camera-users are thought-provoking.

You'll appreciate, as do I, his gracious and careful responses.

1) How did you get involved with the Bilerico Project?

I was outside the California Supreme Court in San Francisco on March 5, 2009, during the legal hearings to overturn Prop 8. A lot of my friends couldn't make the viewing event/protest because of work reasons (it was a Tuesday morning) so they asked if I could tweet pictures. My main profession is a photographer anyway, so besides using my more professional cameras to document the event, I started taking all these pictures with my iphone and tweeting them. I guess the pictures were pretty good since before I knew it, a lot of various blogs, including the Bilerico Project started posting them.

I teach photography at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and I use this as an example for my students, that as long as you learn how to be a good photographer, the equipment you have is sometimes insignificant. A lot of people were surprised that the pictures I took were on my iphone, but I guess when you take pictures for a living, you learn how to manipulate whatever camera you are using for the best results.

Anyway, so Bil checked out my other photographic work and realized that a lot of it deals with LGBTQ rights, and came up with this idea for me to be a photoblogger for the Bilerico Project, where I would share a photographic image every week and then blog about it. It's a great idea and since I'm also an activist and academic, I love sharing my ideas, and the pictures help give Bilerico more visual material to work with.

2) Anything you'd like to add to what has already been said about your experience of working with young out athletes in the production of "Fearless"?

It's been such an exciting project and life experience for me. I never imagined when I started "Fearless" 6 years ago when I was 22 years old, that one day this would all lead to an exhibition and talk at ESPN headquarters, a segment on ABC World News with Charles Gibson, a college teaching job, and me speaking about LGBT rights to high school students across the country -- but I'm amazed and so honored that all this has happened. I'm almost done with "Fearless," and it should be a book by the end of this year. I finished photoshoot #78 recently, so I'm almost at my goal of over 100 athletes for the project. It's also been incredibly inspiring to me to meet all these young out high school and college student athletes, and from my experiences photographing this project, I've also learned a lot about LGBT activism -- more so than if I never was a photographer.

3) In the following head-to-heads, please pick the one you prefer (for any reason) and explain:

Digital vs "old school"

Old school. I love film. But I also use digital quite heavily. "Fearless" is all shot on medium format film - and my "Revolutions of Memory" project, including my 40 feet by 6 feet panoramic of the fence post where Matthew Shepard was found, was shot on 35mm film, but almost everything else I do is digital now.

I think its really important to understand the mechanics of both if you want to be a serious photographer, even if over 90% of everything is being shot digitally nowadays. It's sort of like wanting to be a mathematician, and even though your calculator does everything for you, deciding that you don't need to know your multiplication tables because of technology. This seems really absurd, but nowadays all these new photographers think they don't need to learn the basics of film photography because of digital.

Color vs black&white

Color. I'm completely seduced by it. Haven't shot in black and white since the 90's, but can if needed. I force my intro photo students though to shoot black and white film for the first 3 weeks of class, lol.

Cindy Sherman vs Baron von Gloeden

Cindy Sherman, she was completely genius without even knowing it.

Alfred Stieglitz vs Robert Mapplethorp

Neither. Peter Hujar. He should be more famous than Mapplethorp, but wasn't as good as self-promotion (which happens all the time with photography and life for that matter).

David LaChapelle vs Pierre & Gilles

Again, neither. I respect all their work, and enjoy looking at it.. but I don't consider their work photography. It's much too highly produced. I give more credit to their make-up artists, set-designers, and post-production people, than to the actual "photography" part. As you can tell, I'm sort of a snob about photography, but heck, I'm being honest here.

4) Who is the celebrity you'd most love to photograph?

The First Couple of course! If I had to choose either Barack or Michelle, I'd definitely go with Michelle (those arms would look amazing in a studio shoot!)

5) How do you like having the camera pointed at you, and, what do you fear when you are being photographed?

I sometimes don't really care about how I look in public and photographs of myself sometimes remind me of this habit of mine. :) I guess like most people, I don't want to look bad in a photograph!

6) What projects do you have in mind for the coming year?

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is the big one on the back burner right now... I've been slowly starting the pictures for this, and I'm meeting with SLDN (Servicemember Legal Defense Network) soon about it... but this project is obviously really complicated as I could potentially get someone kicked out of the military (which I don't want). I'm not just photographing former members of the military who were discharged due to the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but also photographing members currently serving who have to remain closeted about their LGBT identity.

The pictures will all be done of the person wearing their uniform in their bedroom as I'm interested in this intersection of the government policing the private space of the bedroom for these members of the military.

Again, I'm being very careful about this project since it could potentially set off a firestorm... but like Fearless, I'm hoping to use photography to bring attention to the detriments of homophobia towards a segment of our community.

7) Tell me about teaching "Masculinities".

I love teaching this course. It's about examining Asian American Masculinities as a masculinity that is marginalized by Western Society and I relate this to gay male identity. But we also examine the ways in which both racism exerts itself in the gay world, and how homophobia works itself into segments of the Asian American community. My students leave the course with a broad understanding about the complications and intersections of race, sexuality, masculinities, and Western culture.

8) If I were in your studio, having just arrived to be photographed, what would you do to get me to relax?

I'd play some music on my sound system, dim the lights and begin firing away. After a few flashes, most people drop their guard and become really relaxed. I'm incredibly focused and calm during my photo shoots, and this generally eases the nerves of a lot of the people I photograph.

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Just letting you know the links for Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David LaChapelle are linking back to bilerico.com, not their respective sites.