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Portrait of an Artist: Jeff T. Sheng '02

Jeff T. Sheng ’02 is a visiting lecturer in Visual and Environmental Studies and a nationally acclaimed photographer. His work fuses art and activism; he first garnered attention for a series on BGLTQ student athletes. His portraits of military personnel affected by the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy were displayed in Washington, D.C. in the weeks before the policy’s repeal. Sheng will give a talk about his work on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

The Harvard Crimson: When did you know photography was your medium of choice?

Jeff Sheng: I was a [Visual and Environmental Studies (VES)] concentrator here at Harvard, and I started photography in my first year in the fall. It was supposed to be an elective, and I wound up falling in love with it and pursuing it as my concentration.

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THC: Why photography–what is special about that form for you?

JS: I like this idea that photography freezes time and shows both truth and, arguably, non-truth. The perspective of the person making the image is infused in what’s seen. I enjoy working alone, being on the road and examining society with my camera, and documenting what’s around me. My work is very sociological and ethnographical—I’ve been photographing these individuals who are part of communities, particularly the [BGLTQ] community, but who are not recognized, however you want to interpret that. The image allows me to bring their individualism out to the forefront to be seen.

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THC: Which of your projects makes you most proud?

JS: I find them equally engaging for me in different ways. I speak at a lot of high schools and colleges and corporations … I’ve become really proud of the way I can integrate my photography with something that is engaging on a different level than just the visual image. But with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’—the timing [was not intentional]. It was 2009, nobody had really thought about the policy being repealed, and I just thought it was important. I happened to coincide with this moment in 2010 where the president and Congress were finally signaling an end to it.

THC: Many of your works deal with political and social issues. Do you consider them more political statements or aesthetic works?

JS: I don’t know if they need to be separated to such a degree that we currently demand them to be. I think that there’s a very persistent line of thought in the art world that art had its political moment before but now should be devoid of any political statement. I don’t understand people who continuously rally against any political work. But at the same time, I think there’s also a very fine line between academia and politics that feels that art is soft or fluffy or decorative, and they don’t place value in the visual arts as a medium that can direct politics. I think both are integrated to a degree that we haven’t fully realized yet. … I see it when I try to enter the art world fully as a legitimized artist. I think sometimes people look at my work and think it’s not art, or when I apply to … grants, they look at art as not as worthy of, say, a research grant or some sociological study grant. It’s stuff that you battle.

THC: Do you have any thoughts regarding the kinds of projects you’d like to do in the future?

JS: I’m gathering participants and ideas [for] something around teen suicide. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I approach every project like this—you have a spark of an idea, and you begin it … I’ve gotten a couple [emails] as I’ve floated this idea around, and the sort of depth of trauma that these people have experienced as teenagers, in regards to coming out or their sexuality or being harassed and bullied, is so—I leave my office just feeling completely overwhelmed by it.

THC: You’re also a visiting VES professor–what draws you to teaching?

JS: One, you are with very intelligent students; two, you are with very intelligent faculty members; and three, you’re tied to an institution. So what I love about it is the interplay of ideas and inspiration and motivation. I can see the successes of colleagues of mine and feel, ‘Wow, I aspire to that level of success,’ and then see students who feel so engaged with what you’re telling them and want to learn from you. Maybe I see a part of myself from 10, 15 years ago, and that’s lovely to just be a part of.

—Staff writer Austin Siegemund-Broka can be reached at asiegemund-broka@college.harvard.edu.

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