Jeff Sheng’s FEARLESS: PORTRAITS OF LGBT STUDENT ATHLETES Celebrates The Best Among Us During Gay Pride Month

PHOTOGRAPHY BOOK OF OVER 200 LGBT STUDENT ATHLETES BY JEFF SHENG, AFTERWORD BY JASON COLLINS 

All Images courtesy of Jeff Sheng, Fearless Project

If there is any great theme of the book, it’s that of family. And the love of one’s family to their LGBT child.” – Jeff Sheng, Writer, Sociologist, Photographer, Artist, Founder, The Fearless Project 

After 13 years of photography by American artist and photographer Jeff Sheng, a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and 3 years of writing, design and production, Fearless: Portraits of  LGBT Student Athletes will finally become a book and be released in late June 2015.  Somebody Books announces the release of FEARLESS, a photography book and personal memoir by Jeff Sheng. Recalling his experience as a closeted high school student athlete in the 1990s, Sheng uses his own story as a foundation for a wider exploration of the current LGBT rights movement.

Derek on the cover of FEARLESS: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes, a photography book and personal memoir by American artist Jeff Sheng

Derek on the cover of FEARLESS: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes, a photography book and personal memoir by American artist Jeff Sheng. Photo courtesy Jeff Sheng, Fearless Project/www.jeffsheng.com

Working this on book, says Sheng, “I have mostly learned about the power of the individual. And hard work and perseverance. I never thought that this book would come out as beautifully as it did. It hasn’t fully hit me yet – having worked on something for 13 years, to finally see it in print. I’m sure the emotion will get to me soon at some point.

Woven throughout the 316-page book are photographic portraits of 202 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender high school and college athletes from the United States and Canada taken by the author over a 13-year span between 2003 and 2015. The book also includes intimate writings from some of the featured athletes and concludes with an afterword essay by retired professional NBA basketball player Jason Collins, the first player in the NBA to come out as openly gay while still competing.

The titles for the images use first name, sport(s), school, and the year in which the photograph was taken. For high school athletes, the state of their high school is noted and also a varsity distinction if that was told to Sheng at the time of the shoot. Most college athletes are varsity NCAA team athletes, though a few are on club/recreation teams. This distinction is not made in the title for college athletes. In certain cases, select photo shoots were done in the year or two following the athlete’s graduation, but most were done while the athlete was still in school and competing.

Fearless is truly a revelation. In the first three chapters, Sheng talked about his childhood, his teenage years (“Growing Up Jeffrey, 1980 -1998“), early years in college (“Into A New Life, 1999-2002“) and the post-grad years of searching for a purpose (“Step Inside The Court, 2003-2005“) in an open, honest way that is quite reminiscent of an earlier autobiography, 1973’s The Best Little Boy In The World (written by Andrew Tobias as “John Reid“),  a classic account of growing up gay in America, which is also voiced in equal parts honesty and logic and humor. The same can be said of Sheng’s story Fearless. It is told not in a straight line narrative but a story that circles back, time and time again, to the ideal that one should be true to one’s self if one is to be truly happy, a sentiment we should all embrace and hold near. The early years, it should be said, informed his future and propelled him to begin, shepherded through the good (and bad) times and bring to fruition the Fearless Project.

Jeff Sheng is an American artist whose photographic work over the last decade has focused on the 21st century LGBT rights movement. Please see www.jeffsheng.com for more information about the artist. (Photo  Credit: Jeff Sheng)

Jeff Sheng is an American artist whose photographic work over the last decade has focused on the 21st century LGBT rights movement. Please see www.jeffsheng.com for more information about the artist. (Photo Credit: Jeff Sheng)

Chapter four (“To Change The Way People See, 2006-2008“) delved into the process of photographing the student athletes, and the way in which his interactions with them served to change him for the better. I have never been more affected by a photograph than I was as I view each image of the 202 student athletes dispersed throughout Fearless. There is indeed something very fearless about these young people. The way they look dare you to judge them (at your own peril) give me hope for the next generation of LGBTQ leaders. We are in good hands with these guys.

The last chapter (“This Is Our Collective Story, 2012-2015“) and the individual essays that followed it is, absolutely, the underlying reason to buy and read this book. These essays allowed some of the featured student athletes to tell their stories, all the better to understand and celebrate their accomplishments as students, athletes, successful human beings and budding leaders of America and the free world.

Alyssa Sialaris, a four-time all-American collegiate athlete, on the cover of FEARLESS: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes, a photography book and personal memoir by American artist Jeff Sheng.  (Photo Credit: Jeff Sheng/www.jeffsheng.com)

Alyssa Sialaris, a four-time all-American collegiate athlete, on the cover of FEARLESS: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes, a photography book and personal memoir by American artist Jeff Sheng. (Photo Credit: Jeff Sheng/www.jeffsheng.com)

The emotion heart and soul of Fearless belongs to Alyssa Sialaris, a four-time all-American collegiate athlete Sheng had photographed just a few months earlier in 2013, who had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-sheng/photographer-responds-to-parents-of-lgbt-athlete-who-passed-away_b_7542036.html). Her loss is deeply felt, from her photo on one of the covers to the heartfelt essay written by her close friend, Jordan Vega.

Sheng praised the young people profiled: “I don’t want this book to be about me. It’s about the athletes, the 202 brave young individuals who had the courage to come out while still in high school or college, something that I could never do as a student athlete.  While the book is my personal memoir, it is also a celebration of everyone’s collective accomplishments as an LGBT community, each one of us doing out part to advance our rights to just be who we are. It’s our collective memoir for the movement.”

FRONT-BACK-COVER-SAMPLE

Photo courtesy Jeff Sheng, Fearless Project

To capture the diversity of the LGBT community, the book has 8 different speciality covers, each one with a different athlete from Fearless, representing the wide spectrum of sport, experience, race/ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation/gender identity of the LGBT sports community. When stacked together, the 8 different book versions form a three-dimensional representation of the original 1978 LGBT pride flag. While each of the 8 covers is different, the inside of every Fearless book is the same.

FEARLESS: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes (Hardcover, 8.5” x 11” vertical, 316pp, published by Somebody Books, is now available for sale ($39.50) at [fearlessbookstore.com]) and will start shipping to the public the last week of June, the timing coinciding with the 45th anniversary of the first LGBT pride marches held in New York and San Francisco in 1970. It was printed using five-color process inks, by offset lithography, and Smyth sewn in 21 signatures. The book was designed by New York-based design firm Isometric Studio and printed by Colonial Printing, a division of Integrity Graphics Inc., in Warwick, Rhode Island.

Jeff Sheng is an artist, photographer, writer and sociologist based in Los Angeles. For over the last decade, his work has explored issues of LGBT rights and acceptance in the 21st Century, and his photography on this topic has been published by Time Magazine, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, the Advocate, and The New Yorker, among others.

Since 2006, his photo series Fearless, which this book is based on, has been exhibited at over 70 different venues, including the headquarters of Nike, Goldman Sachs and ESPN, as well as select locations at the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2012 Summer Olympics. His other well known series, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (2009-2011), about closeted United States military service members, was profiled in 2010 by The New York Times, ABC World News Tonight, and CNN.

Sheng completed his undergraduate degree at Harvard College in Visual and Environmental Studies (VES), and has a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Studio Art from the University of California, Irvine.  He is also a PhD Candidate in sociology at Stanford University.

Ultimately, FEARLESS will reach a wide-ranging audience across the spectrum but Sheng has a primary target audience in mind:  “The book was designed with the target audience of ‘PFLAG parents’ in mind. Seriously. We thought that the person who should read it the most were the parents of an LGBT high school or college student, and who wanted to understand and connect with their child more.  If there is any great theme of the book, it’s that of family. And the love of one’s family to their LGBT child.

Jason Collins is a retired American professional basketball player of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Collins was selected in the first round of the 2001 draft and played for 13 years until his retirement in 2014. Throughout his career he played for New Jersey, Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta, Boston, Washington and the Brooklyn Nets (formerly the New Jersey Nets). After the 2012-13 NBA season concluded, Collins publicly came out as gay in a cover story for Sports Illustrated, becoming the first active male player in any of the four major American professional sports to announce that he is gay. In April 2014, Collins was featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Collins writes: “Coming out is one of the bravest actions that a person can take. The fact that these individuals are so young, still in high school and college, makes their decision to step forward even more remarkable. It gives us hope and makes us proud to see the next generation boldly embracing their true selves at such a young age. They are individuals that come from different races, religions, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Their images displayed in this book are truly inspirational.

(All the photographs taken between 2003–2013 were shot on medium format, 6×7 film. The photographs in 2014 and after were all taken with a digital SLR Nikon D810 Camera.)

Somebody Books is an independent publisher based in Los Angeles. The firm works with artists, photographers, and graphic designers, connecting them with funding sources and production agents, to oversee the creation of specialty books and works of art that would normally not be produced by mass-market publishers.