Sm{art}: Jeff Sheng's Don't Ask Don't Tell

two women with their backs to the camera sit on a hotel bed facing a wall. Both their faces are obscured. One woman in uniform leans in to the other woman's face. Their embracing shadow is cast on the wall above the bed.
Glynn and Celine, Fort Worth, Texas, 2009

The problematic policy of Don't Ask Don't Tell, implemented in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, has now been beautifully, if not dutifully rendered visible by LA-based photographer Jeff Sheng. That is, visible to the certain point his courageous subjects can be while in uniform.

The Don't Ask Don't Tell project started in 2008 when Sheng began receiving anonymous emails in response to his Fearless project, a series of portrait photographs of high school and collegiate athelete who identified as gay, lesbian, or transgendered and were out to their teammates. Some of these emails were from closeted servicemen or women, and Sheng was inspired to begin documenting them (with their trust and permission) through photography.

Collecting dozens of photographs (more than he expected), Sheng planned to release one large volume of photographs in early 2011, but instead decided to release the project in volumes throughout 2010, partially encouraged by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to raise awareness of the issue, given Obama's State-of-the-Union promise to "work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are...It's the right thing to do."

Sheng's photographs appear simple at first glance, but quickly draw you into complexity. Although the subjects' military uniform is in plain site, their identity is concealed, partially for metaphor of Don't Ask Don't Tell, but also for their own safety and anonymity.

A photograph of a blank television screen, a woman's reflection cast convexly in its black screen. She sits stoically, in uniform, her cap pulled over her face. You can vaguely make out a Puerto Rican flag hanging behind her.
Natalie, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2009

Sheng explains his process:

"I have purposely shot each image in a way that obscures to some degree the identity of the individuals, and the final image that is released to the public is first approved by the subject, and is in many ways, their expression of their closet-ness and lack of identity. For each image, I have asked the individual to wear their uniform, while staging the photoshoot in a bedroom or local hotel room where that person is currently serving. I am interest in the intersections between public and private space, and the government's policing of our private spaces - the bedroom being the most representative of this."

A black man sits on a bed. His back is to the camera and he is facing to the right. A mirror reflects his front but his face is obscured by a panel. He is in fatigues.
Mark, Savannah, Georgia, 2009

Entirely self-funded and self-published, Volume 1 of Don't Ask Don't Tell is available for $30 (with a $5 discount for veterans, students, and low-income folks) here, and check his website for updates on the project. He's also looking for more participants for the upcoming books - find more info here

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Where's the feminist

Where's the feminist critique? Allowing LGB folks to serve openly in the military is not a step towards de-militarization. Assimilation is not liberation, especially for folks living in spaces occupied by US troops.


Sure, militarization is problematic but that is not what this piece is about. This blog post is clearly about showing LGBT members of the military in a different light (that pun was definitely intended). It is more about empowering those members of the military who have been kept in place by a minority of politicians that are so wrapped up in old Christian values that they are more prone to throw a Bible at a homosexual than let them serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Not the point.

I agree with Nameless here. While militarization is clearly problematic, it is also clearly not the point of this blog post or of Sheng's photography. Are you saying that because the armed forces suck, we shouldn't care about the experiences of homosexual soldiers, or view art that is meant to convey those experiences? That makes no sense.


This piece is about militarization. I get that the piece is trying to challenge. This happens in the documentation of LGB military personnel having to hide their identities because of government encroachment in private space. What about government invasion of non-US (queer) spaces? Just because art and rhetoric supporting the repeal of DADT does not include discussion of militarization does not mean this is an irrelevant topic. Rather the dearth of this analysis by folks supporting the repeal is in itself interesting.

Supporting LGB military is not an either or (ie. either one supports gay people thinking that everyone should be able to express their sexuality openly or one is a homophobe). Empowering and caring about all queer folks - US military forces and people facing occupying forces' violence - would be to demilitarize and create and sustain alternative livelihoods.

I did not write that folks shouldn't view this art. I asked where the feminist critique was. Advocating for assimilation (and therefore recruitment!) of US queers in a violent institution is a scary goal.

Personally, I feel Sheng is

Personally, I feel Sheng <i>is</i> offering a feminist critique of (one aspect) of militarization, by looking at how the military affects the identities and sexuality of its (US) members. Take it up with him on what else he should have tried to do for his personal project.

Of course talking about the military isn't irrelevant, but this is a post about an artist (indicated by the lovely Sm{art} icon that accompanies all art-related posts), not about the problems of the military (which would not fit in a single blog post). Bitch is a feminist response to pop culture, which includes art more than it does politics, and there are lots of other places on the Internet for you to read about those things. Here are only a few.

<a href="">National Center for Transgender Equality: Military</a>
<a href="“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Disproportionately Affecting Black Women" (Racewire)</a>
<a href="’s-gay-community/article6965.html">“Will Faith-Based Agencies Help Haiti’s Gay Community?"</a> (I think the issues raised in this article could be transferable to UN and US troops in Haiti as well)

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