"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" exhibit captures the lives of gay soldiers

Grace is photographed jumping on a bed for Jeff Sheng's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" exhibit.
Grace is photographed jumping on a bed for Jeff Sheng's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" exhibit. Photo by Jeff Sheng

Photographer Jeff Sheng traveled to 25 states and shot portraits of sixty gay and lesbian servicemen and woman for his exhibit "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He spoke about the process with KPCC's Alex Cohen.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy mandates the immediate discharge of those persons in the United States military who are allegedly or openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Earlier this week, a federal judge in Southern California issued an injunction immediately banning enforcement of the policy.

Sheng says he was inspired to capture portraits of gay and lesbian military members after several got in touch with him about his other photography work.

Utilizing the Internet and social networking, he connected with the rest of his subjects through his artist website and online word of mouth. The mutual trust formed in this process became crucial to the work, he says.

The service members counted on the artist not to reveal their actual identities.

To create the photographs, Sheng used composition, lighting and shadow effects to mask part or all of his subjects' faces, and collaborated with them on various poses and gestures that signify their identities.

“As I began to photograph the series, I quickly realized the multitude of meanings contained in the phrase ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’" he says. "While it certainly applied to their sexuality, I discovered more levels of significance as almost all of these service members had fought in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade.

"The invisibility of these wars, as well as our lack of recognition towards everyone in the military and their efforts, became a powerful inspiration for the work and an added metaphor within the title, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”

The current exhibition features 20 framed images, along with two artist books highlighting the portraits and individual stories of over 60 currently serving military personnel. These final images presented to the public were first approved by the participants, who also provided an alias and location with personal meaning for the title of their pictures.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be at the Kaycee Olsen Gallery through October 23. The Kaycee Olsen Gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday (Thursdays 12 p.m.-6 p.m.), admission is free and open to the public.

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