Photographer Jeff Sheng started his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” project, photographing closeted service members in the U.S. military affected by DADT, knowing only one thing for sure–that he wouldn’t be able to show any names or faces. He traveled the country, making new friends, sometimes crashing in spare rooms, often on military bases…living off his credit card. He said he brought with him just his light kit and pulled from everything he’d ever learned about photography. Little did he know that his project, which began in 2008 and which he self-published in 2009, would fall in the hands of high-level military personnel and White House officials. Nor could he predict that just two years after he made the intimate portrait, above, that he would be back, photographing the couple’s wedding–on a military base, names and faces and all, below, thanks to President Barack Obama’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A lot has changed in a short time, and Sheng has been at the forefront.
Will Behrens, left, and husband, Tech Sgt. Erwynn Umali are shown during on McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a joint military base in Wrightstown, N.J.– the first announced gay civil union or wedding ever to take place on an American military installation. Sheng experienced a profound photographic moment when he realized he was shooting their wedding on the same memory card that he used to shoot their portrait. “I have a rotation of 40 memory cards, so that if, by chance, something were to happen to all three of my backed-up hard drives, I would still have the shoot on the card during the 40-card rotation process. I had no idea until I popped the card in that morning, that it was the card that held the photos of their original portrait. I showed them the images and then symbolically reformatted the card, right before they walked down the aisle.”
Behrens, left, and Umali, celebrate with a kiss after the ceremony.
The DADT project was actually not something he sought out to do. It was born out of his “Fearless” project, featuring portraits of out and proud LGBT high school athletes. He said after that project was published, he started receiving emails from LGBT service members asking if he’d be interested in photographing them as well. “I think they just wanted some sort of way of expressing that their love and who they loved was as important as that of their straight counterparts, even if their names and faces could not be revealed.” Some of the images from that project are shown below. For more information or to see more of Sheng’s work, visit: www.jeffsheng.com.