Jeff Sheng

Now available: Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Volume 1

Filed By Jeff Sheng | January 26, 2010 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Don't Ask Don't Tell, gays in the military, Jeff Sheng, military, photo books, photography

I first want to start this post by saying a big thank you to the over thirty service members in our military who have allowed me to photograph them for my "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," photo series so far. It takes a huge amount of courage to volunteer for this project, as these individuals are basically risking being kicked out of the military - it is something that I do not take for granted. Any one who knows me personally, will know that I care deeply about those that I photograph, and I feel indebted to the number of people so far willing to risk their careers to be in this project.

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That being said, I am incredibly pleased and happy to announce the pre-sales and release of my first publication, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Volume 1.

I decided to break up the publication of my "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" project into different volumes for various reasons, the most significant is that after consulting with various groups involved with the repeal effort of DADT, most notably, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), they advised that I try to release a book at the beginning of 2010. My initial plan was to finish the project by the end of 2010 and then publish everything into a larger book in 2011, but I chose instead to break things up and release the project in segments throughout 2010 to help put a "face" to those that are affected the most by this policy and add to the debate this year on the issue.

To finish Volume 1 I had to fly over 30,000 miles across the United States the last three months, while gaining the trust of seventeen service members willing to be in a project that had no real finished product at the time - and to be the first ones willing to be in something that no one else had participated in yet. I am still amazed that I had such a large number of volunteers. If you read the LA Times article written in mid-November about my project, I am quoted as saying that my goal was 20 portraits by this Spring. I currently have over 30 and my goal is now to have over 100 different photo shoots by August. Please contact me via e-mail if you are interested in participating.

To get a copy of the book, please visit the online book store I have set up specifically to handle the sales of the DADT books: www.DADTbook.com. I decided that for the time being, I would discount the book to $25 from the retail price of $30, in order to get a nice jump-start to initial pre-sales. I am also offering $5 off to those who are students, in the military, or those under financial hardship, so you can get a copy for just $20. I have also set up a way for people to donate money directly to the project itself, and as a thank you, for even just $1, I'll gladly sign your book before sending it off to you.

Since somebody asked from my last post, I wanted to just reiterate that the project is completely self-funded and self-published. I chose to photograph this issue because about 2 years ago, when my other photo project "Fearless" was beginning to get a lot of media attention, I began to receive anonymous e-mails from closeted service members in our military asking if I had ever considered working on a photo project on DADT.

For those of you who don't know about "Fearless," that photo series is about openly LGBT-identified athletes on high school and college sports teams, who are "out" to their teammates and coaches. A lot of the closeted service members who e-mailed me were incidentally also high school and college athletes, so they were particularly interested in "Fearless." In 2009, I finally decided to commit to working on DADT, and Volume 1 is the first product from that commitment.

To make this all happen though, I've basically taken on an enormous amount of debt - but I say this not to garner sympathy or whatnot (since we all live with debt) but rather, to stress the point that I don't make the work I do to make money. The discounted price of the books are basically close to my cost to pay my book printers in Los Angeles, and my intention here is to raise the issue of DADT to the public via these photo books. I am an artist, and making beautiful, compelling images is what drives me. If on the chance, I were to pay off my debt and was financially able to donate books or profits to organizations working for the repeal, I would gladly do so.

So please, go to the site www.DADTbook.com and order a copy soon. The books should be ready to be shipped in a week, maybe even sooner, and for the time being, at least for the first 500 copies, they are $5 off from the normal retail price. I know that Bil will be reviewing a copy soon, and there will be a contest shortly for the readers of the Bilerico Project to win copies soon too. Here are some images from the book, which also includes selected anonymous e-mails from various service members affected by the policy in some way:

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Thanks, just ordered it. Bravo Zulu for doing this project!

I do not see a constructive purpose to this project. There could as easily be photos of service members after they leave the military. I doubt that everyone photographed knows the trouble that they face once they violate the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

If someone is involuntarily outed or investigated, of course they deserve support. However, the people who oppose gays in the military have long argued that people play the "gay card" and go public when they change their mind about serving. There are already plenty of "faces" on gays in the military, with the scores under investigation at any one time, and with all the dismissals. Why throw matches on the gasoline on these young kids?

Hey Pete, thank you for your comment on the issue and your point of view. While there has been attention on those that are being discharged or having been discharged, (Lt. Dan Choi for instance) -- many repeal groups and advocates for our cause have always had a difficult time putting "a face" to those that are closeted and serving, and who must continue to live their lives under DADT. I think it is very surprising to most people when I mention that one of the estimates of those currently serving and closeted is around 65,000 individuals (from the Urban Institute sited from SLDN's facts sheet). We have only heard from or seen a fraction of these soldiers that continue day to day to willingly serve despite their continued second class citizen-ship.

One would be mistaken however to think that these are only young kids in the pictures.. a good number of them are high ranking individuals, some with at least 10-20 years of service, who are very high up in command. They completely know the risks, but are willing to be in my photo series, because they are tired of being completely silent, yet of course do not want to come out in a way that would immediately cost them their career - in many ways, it is the most they can currently do to take a stand against something that has burdened them for years - yet not lose their retirement benefits, have to pay back bonuses and schooling, lose their jobs.. these individuals all know the risk (and the photobook itself contains a very serious e-mail from SLDN's legal council warning everyone of the risk -- this part it clearly stated in the book).

As I said before - I simply want to give these silent individuals some sort of voice - something many have wanted, yet can not afford to do by "just coming out". In that spirit, the photobook also contains some heartbreaking e-mails from these soldiers to me about their experiences (with the names and addressed blocked out) - detailing their service in places such as the Iraq War, and also the case of one individual, who has been with his partner for over 20 years and are raising a child together, yet can not be at all publicly recognized as a couple.

I just posted all the pictures from "Volume 1" on my site: http://www.jeffsheng.com so that the public can now see all the images.