Jeff Sheng Captures Fearlessness

What is fear? Fear, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear keeps us from fully being who we are. It’s fear that prevents us from doing the things that we want to do and living the life that we want to live. The absence of this inhibiting emotion is what we unsurprisingly refer to as fearlessness. What is fearlessness? To be fearless means to be invincible. To live a life without fear means to be indomitable, to be unconquerable. But fear is a part of our everyday lives and there is no escaping it in some degree.

For those whose rights and identities are at the margins of society, fear can be a common staple in everyday life. And in a setting normally reserved for heteronormative behavior and where the very idea or notion of a queer identity carries a stark stigma, a lifestyle absent of fear can feel and seem impossible.
In the realm of sports and athletics, homophobia runs rampant. Coming out about one’s sexual orientation, while normally a difficult and daunting endeavor, is made exponentially more difficult within the athletics environment. This is a sentiment that Jeff Sheng experienced as a student athlete while he was in high school.

Sheng, a professional photographer and UCI alumnus, created a photography project called The Fearless Project in memorandum to this. He created the project as a means to empower queer folks who have traditionally been suppressed and denigrated within this setting. The project helps to put a face to the queer identified athletes who are out there. Athletes in these photos are pictured after their completion of a vigorous workout. Sheng was inspired to create this project because of his own experience as a closeted athlete while he was in school. The project is dedicated to featuring pictures of “out” LGBTQ athletes at both the high school and college level. The Fearless Project’s display is a way to empower athletes and an opportunity for them to take ownership, pride and power from not only their performance as athletes but also from their sexual orientation and identity.

Sheng produced the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” photo series. He has been featured in Time Magazine, the New York Times, BBC News and much more. Sheng is currently enrolled in a doctorate program for sociology at Stanford University. The project is an intuitive and inventive approach to an environment particularly prone to homophobia and LGBTQ discrimination. Athletics has always been an outlet for brimming masculinity and a means for the affirmation of heteronormative behavior. The bravery exhibited by the athletes featured on Sheng’s photography display is awe-inspiring and something which offers one a sense of the human soul and spirit. The project has become an outlet for LGBTQ athletes to speak and have not only their faces seen but also their voices heard.

The Fearless Project has been presented to several college campuses and high schools throughout the country and was also on display at ESPN Headquarters in 2008 and the International LGBT Human Rights Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009, among many other prominent locations including the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

The exhibit has greatly expanded since its inception and has also come to incorporate the voices of these athletes through self-recorded videos which can be found in the “Athlete Videos” section of the project’s official website, The videos feature out athletes who have chosen to participate in the Fearless Project on an even deeper level by offering a personal testimonial of their experiences.

The project has garnered widespread support and has been hallmarked as a substantial stepping stone for the LGBTQ community today in the arena of athletics. And now the Fearless Project’s physical photography display has arrived to UC Irvine and will be open for students, faculty and the general public from April 7 to the 18 at the ARC.

To have the courage to be photographed and filmed in regard to such a personal and intimate aspect of one’s identity is nothing short of fearless. Recently big name collegiate and professional athletes have taken to owning their identities both on and off of the field. Michael Sam, defensive end for the University of Missouri and one of the top draft prospects in the nation publicly came out as gay this past February.

“I want to own my truth,” Sam said in an interview with ESPN’s Chris Connelley. “Two weeks ago at The Senior Bowl I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me or tell a story. I just wanted to control the situation and tell my story.”
The Fearless Project allows queer identified athletes exactly this — the opportunity to own their truth and tell their own story.