Editors' note: Scott Barnes is a photographer based in Indianapolis and Chicago. His work has been published on the DNA Magazine website and in numerous publications, and he is currently working on two fine-art books of photography.
First, this book is smaller than I expected it to be. Somehow, I thought Bil was going to hand me a coffee table book with 50 to 100 pages in it. What I got is closer in size to a program from a Broadway musical. But then I noticed that this is just Volume 1 of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
More importantly, the small scope of the first collection might speak to the subject matter-- I'm sure there are a lot more gay and lesbian members of the armed forces than some politicians want us to know about (off the top of my head, I can think of 10 GLB servicepersons that I know, personally). And yet I suspect that, at times, Jeff Sheng must have had difficulty finding participants. These people have so much to lose--their careers, their pensions, their reputations, their educations, and more--just by choosing to let Sheng take a simple portrait of them.
Sheng's photos in Don't Ask, Don't Tell are all in color, and his subjects are void of emotion. Each photo has a dominant bright area and rather dominant dark areas (often, Sheng uses sidelighting to make this effect even more intense). All of these are popular trends in portrait photography right now, but here it's more than contemporary technique. Sheng's juxtaposition of light and shadows work to simultaneously show and hide each of his subjects. These are people that want to be validated, but they can't risk it.
Despite this, the photos are welcoming. There is a warmth to the images, which is no small feat considering that the most vibrant color in some of the shots is the army-fatigue green of a soldier's uniform. Subtle uses of yellows and tans and reds add to the warm tonality of the collection. If Sheng had shot these photos using cooler colors, the viewers would have been given the option of remaining more emotionally distant from the subjects. As it is, the soothing, pleasant tones subtly helps viewers realize that these are not just soldiers, and not just homosexuals, but people.
Of course, each soldier's identity is hidden--they don't want to "tell," after all. Normally, I don't care for portraits without faces. But it works here, and not just because it has to. The way the soldiers are shot as if emerging from the shadows--yet still in hiding--makes them even more interesting.
Sheng asked each participant to pose in a place that is "significant" to him or her, and as I looked at the portraits I found myself curious about each setting. What is so meaningful to him about that hotel room? Why is he standing in an empty bedroom? Whose living room is that? These soldiers all had lives before they entered the military. They have memories; and relationships; and by allowing Sheng to photograph them, they confess a strong desire to be not only acknowledged but accepted--but their dedication to the U.S. Armed Forces trumps all that. It's sad, really, that the soldiers that seem to give up the most are so easily dismissed.