The Power of a Face
The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Project Revealed
In the summer of 2008, as the media coverage on the Fearless project increased, I began receiving emails from closeted service members. Many were former high school and college athletes with whom Fearless resonated strongly. They asked if I had considered working on a military project about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and several volunteered to take part in such a project. With each message, I responded with a firm but polite maybe. Truthfully, the thought of beginning a second project before completing the first seemed daunting, and I wasn’t sure I could afford the time.
By January 2009, I decided it might be the best time to pursue the subject, given the political climate. In fact, it seemed like it might have been the only chance for repeal in the foreseeable future, and a project profiling military members could be significant to the movement. I arranged a weekend trip to Minneapolis to meet with Will, a college student originally considered for the Fearless project, who had recently enlisted in the Army Reserve.
Will played football for Macalester College, a small, liberal arts school in the Twin Cities. I first photographed him in his football uniform on a snow-covered field near the school. Afterward, we went to his dorm room where I photographed him in his new Army uniform. During the shoot, I asked him, “Are you sure you want to do this?” He answered, “Yes. If the military kicks me out because of these photographs, I won’t have a problem. It’s important for them to see that we exist.”
I did have a problem, however. I had a problem with my photographs being the impetus for someone getting into trouble. I care deeply about everyone I have photographed. So critical is the trust between subject and photographer to the essence of the story that without trust, there is no story—just pictures. I left Minneapolis thinking this might be the only photo shoot I would ever do for DADT.
A few weeks later in my studio in Los Angeles, I found myself looking at Will’s pictures. I was drawn to one in particular. He was standing in his dorm room, staring stoically into the camera, his last name clearly visible on his Army uniform. I emailed the picture to him and asked again, “Are you absolutely sure that I can post this image on my website to announce my new project on DADT?” I received a quick reply: “Absolutely.” But I couldn’t do it. I never put that image on my website. I knew what could happen to Will. He could be reprimanded and discharged. I couldn’t have lived with that burden on my conscience. So I filed the images away on my computer and decided against pursuing this project. It just didn’t feel right for me.
About six months later, I received a second email from Kenneth, a service member who had contacted me in 2008. “Dear Mr. Sheng, I wanted to let you know that I have finished my tour in the Middle East and will be coming back to the United States soon. You told me about a year ago that I should let you know when I would be back, as you were considering a project on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I was hoping to still be part of this, but was wondering if there was any way where you could take the photograph so that I might not be completely recognizable. I would like to continue serving my country and to not get in trouble.”
I realized that this was my solution. I went back to my archives, pulled out Will’s photograph, and I did something I almost never do to any of my images—I cropped it. I pulled the corners of the photo in so you could no longer see the top half of his face. I also decided to blur out his name on his uniform. I looked at this new image and realized the strength of it was in its anonymity. By denying Will his identity, it served as a powerful metaphor for DADT itself. I decided to continue the project, but this time, using my camera to create portraits where the faces couldn’t be seen.
I quickly followed up with Kenneth and arranged to fly to Arkansas two months later. His became the second photograph for the series: “Kenneth, Kuwait, 2009.” Standing in his bedroom, his back turned toward the camera with two lighting kits making sure his body fell into shadow, he could be recognized only as a service member, denied his true identity by law.
Later, I drove to Oklahoma and photographed another service member who had volunteered, and that image turned out to be, “Jess, Bend, Oregon.” This was only the third photo shoot I did, but it became the iconic image that was first published in November 2009 in The Los Angeles Times and would become the cover image for my first book of the series. Two months later, in January 2010, it was reprinted in Time Magazine to mark the moment in history when President Obama declared in his State of the Union address that he would work with Congress to repeal DADT. Since then, “Jess, Bend, Oregon,” has been widely published and has become one of the most recognizable images of the repeal.
It still surprises me that it took just three photo shoots for this project to gain national attention. Perhaps this was because the images and the subject material were so powerful. Perhaps it was because the nation was finally ready to see this brutal rule lifted. I would ultimately photograph nearly a hundred service members for the series. These brave women and men helped to catapult the issue of repeal into the mainstream and become cultural icons in their own rite. The trust they put in me is something I can never repay.
In addition to the media, the photographs circulated in the Pentagon and Congress and were even seen by high-ranking officials and staff members in the White House. Congressman Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) wrote the forward for the second volume of the DADT book, and I received countless emails and thank-you notes from many of you serving in the military. I am deeply humbled by all of this.
There will eventually be a volume three to the DADT project. I conducted about 30 new photo shoots in 2011, which, when combined with images from volumes one and two, will be married with current pictures featuring the subjects’ faces, much like the ones accompanying this article. This book will serve as a historical compilation that seeks to finally put DADT into its rightful place—in the past.
For more information on his current projects and to contribute, please go to jeffsheng.com.