Visiting photographer Jeff Sheng spoke to a packed, SRO crowd of students, faculty and staff last week about his project, “Fearless”. The audience sat rapt as Jeff described his journey from elite high school tennis star to Harvard University to finding his passion as an artist through photography.
As an out gay athlete, he shared with us his keen desire to take photos of other athletes who were also out to their friends, coaches, and college community. He described the process of finding the first subjects to shoot, of the challenges he faced trying to capture the perfect image of the athlete, and his experiences over the past few years visiting a variety of colleges to talk about his project.
Jeff’s preferred way of having his art exhibited is in a public space. This has been done quite successfully on numerous college campuses prior to his Bryant visit. When a small group of us talked about using a public space on our campus to show his portraits, we were optimistic that the Bryant community would truly enjoy looking at his project and that by putting it in such a public space, his exhibit would be accessible to many in our community.
For four days Jeff’s photographs hung on display in two Bryant Center hallways. In addition to the beautiful pictures, there was an explanation of Jeff’s project as well as information on the talk Jeff was scheduled to give on Friday, April 20th. Hundreds of people had the chance to view his artwork and to think about the messages in each picture.
And then the unspeakable happened. Friday morning—some time between 6:45 am and 7:30 am, all of Jeff’s photos were gone from the Bryant Center hallways. Only the small pieces of sticky tape that were used to mount the pictures remained. Information about the project as well as his scheduled talk – gone. Just. Like. That.
Why? Who took it upon himself/herself/themselves to remove this art exhibit? Was someone offended by this collection of photos? Really? Enough to calculate the perfect time to take them off the walls of the Bryant Center?
Jeff Sheng told us that he has given his talk at over 60 colleges and that this was the first time all of his pictures were removed. (At one college, he told us, a student took two of the photos because he/she found them attractive and wanted them for their residence hall room. Once it became known that this had occurred, the student returned the pictures and apologized.) Never have all the photos disappeared. Until he came to Bryant.
Part of our university’s response to this ugly incident is to create and display a series of photographs that depicts LGBT faculty, staff, and students alongside their straight allies. Each photograph is captioned BRYANT IS FEARLESS, to echo the spirit of Sheng’s exhibit and to state clearly that Bryant is committed to full equality and inclusion for every member of our community.
To the members of the Bryant community who participated in this project, thank you! Your participation helps create a lasting response to a regrettable incident on our campus.
We have much to be grateful for on our campus. We now have an LGBTQ center, gender neutral housing, and an active LGBTQ caucus of faculty and staff. We are a community that is working diligently to be inclusive and accepting of all members. We talk about this frequently and it’s in the University’s strategic plan as we look to become even more diverse by 2020.
We know the majority of our campus was disheartened by this brazen act of intolerance and disrespect. We hope that the Bryant is Fearless photo exhibit will help reinforce the message that Bryant University is a campus where each person is treated with respect and dignity.