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.
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."
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