Athletes at core of 'Fearless' photo project

Little means more to photographer Jeff Sheng than his athlete-centric "Fearless Project." Courtesy of Jeff Sheng

Ten years? Did Jeff Sheng really expect it to last this long?

Not even close.

He started it simply as a small, personal project, something that would allow him to use his photography degree while paying the bills with other work.

Now, 9 years old and going on 10, it's a force: The "Fearless Project," a series of portraits showing, with first name and school, more than 150 openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) student-athletes throughout North America's colleges and high schools. It's been exhibited on campuses throughout the U.S., at Nike headquarters, at the 2012 London Olympics and in ESPN's own Bristol halls. It's got a wait list of 40 or 50, Sheng says -- athletes requesting to be a part of the project themselves.

And now, Sheng is culminating it, bringing an end to the photography portion by aiming to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter -- to shoot 50 more athletes, then put all 200 or so into a self-published book by 2013.

“The athletes have always asked me to do a photo book, or to finish their project in some way," said Sheng, who has taught photography as a visiting professor at Harvard (his alma mater) and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and whose "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" project earned him extensive media attention in and around 2010.

"Really, the project has been driven by these athletes. ... They really have encouraged me to keep the project alive.”

Gallery: 16 selected photos from Jeff Sheng's "Fearless Project"Photo Gallery

The first athlete to push Sheng? Sheng himself.

A talented tennis player at Thousand Oaks High School in suburban Los Angeles, Sheng up and quit before his senior year, well before trying to walk on as a collegiate tennis player ("I wouldn’t have been a recruit," he said, "but I could have easily hung in there"). The reason: He himself is gay, but at the time hadn't told anyone, and feared what might happen while remaining in the world of athletics -- one that still hasn't seen a high-profile professional come out.

Sheng, 31, regrets leaving tennis to this day -- it's one of his few remaining regrets, he said. So, after graduating, Sheng set out to find and focus on athletes who didn't make this choice, athletes who chose to stick with sports despite identifying themselves as LGBT, and create the rare compilation of such individuals.

Early on it was tough finding subjects, especially since he was no nationally known photographer. “The first two years of the project," he said, "I photographed 20 athletes, and thought that was a lot."

Things picked up when he started touring campuses around 2006, and athletes would see him talk, and "they would see the work, and they realized that what I was doing was beneficial for them, and they thought that if they were in the project ... that perhaps when I traveled the show somewhere, that another athlete would be able to see it and realize that they weren’t alone.”

Even as that happened he ran into his challenges. Shooting the athletes was a bit difficult. "I would say the majority of the athletes in the project have never modeled," Sheng said, "never done any professional kind of photography work."

Then came the criticism, which really got to him early on, as web- and in-person commenters focused on the fact that, because of the intensely personal angle of the project, Sheng goes out of his way to avoid shooting traditional "sports-like" portraits that feature what he calls "a Greek-like goddess or god kind of a pose."

“[They] would be like, ‘These are terrible photographs,'" Sheng said. "And I was like, ‘No, this is aesthetically what I want.’ ... But now I think I’ve proven my point as I’ve done this project longer.”

Almost never-ending, though, at least until recently, was another form of insecurity, one that's all too natural for a former Harvard guy whose classmates drew six-figure salaries while, for a spell, he worked part-time in an Apple store and racked up an estimated six figures in credit card debt (until the Kickstarter project, Sheng has insisted upon paying for every photograph -- including travel to the athlete's school -- himself).

"It’s really hard to go back to reunion and see your former peers and realize that you’re doing something that financially doesn’t have a lot of reward," Sheng said.

Then again, he always kept sight of one hope: "Perhaps in the long run, [it will have] even greater benefits than you can imagine.”

That's what he sees now, in the eyes of these 150 athletes -- a 60-40 split between college and high school -- who stare back at the camera both in individual portraits and, amassed, in a slideshow-plus-voiceover (posted below) that premiered at the Pride House at London 2012.

That's what he sees as a future for the Fearless Project, on a newly created website aimed to house many of his images, as well as first-person video accounts from any athlete -- previously photographed or not -- who wishes to tell his or her story.

And that's why he wants it all to come together in this final project, a tangible, bound book to hand to these athletes as he grows more active in teaching after getting his doctorate from Stanford.

He might have been shooting the project, he says. But the athletes? They kept it going into Year 9, soon to be Year 10.

“I will be honest and say that there are moments where I have really thought about just ending it,” Sheng said. “But the athletes keep on pushing me.”