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Jeff Sheng talks about his love of photography, social movements and finding the “freedom to explore” different subjects

Jeff Sheng stands in the north quad courtyard

Monday, 11/13/2023

University of Michigan School of Information assistant professor Jeff Sheng joined UMSI in 2021. An award-winning photographer with a dedication to understanding people and the communities they exist in, Sheng’s research and art has taken him all over the world. 

In this interview, Sheng talks about his life before joining UMSI, his current research on the LGBTQ+ movement in the United States military and the role of technology in activism. 

Tell us about yourself and the questions you’re exploring in your research. 

I've got a couple of different research streams. I think overall what I'm most interested in is how digital technologies alter traditionally accepted notions of how things in society occur. I know that's pretty broad, but there's a couple of areas I'm interested in. One obviously is social movements and I'm teaching a course currently on social movements and the internet. 

In recent years there have been a lot of theories about how social movements operate in the time of the internet. My current book project examines how underground social movements operate. I use the case of LGBTQ+ movements in the United States military and the fight for inclusion. 

There were two different periods with Don’t Ask, Don't Tell. In 2011, it was repealed for lesbian, gay and bisexual service members, and then from 2015-2021 it was hard to know if transgender service members were allowed to serve because of Donald Trump. 

I then compare this case of LGBTQ+ military inclusion in the U.S. with a completely different underground social movement, the aftermath of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong Protests where pro-Democracy activists there have had to leave due to their involvement in those protests. 

Jeff Sheng poses in the North Quad courtyard

What interests you in this research? 

This book project comes from research I did for my dissertation. I was originally going to work on organizational inclusion. This was in 2015 and the research was looking at how formal organizations include LGBTQ+ identities in the 21st century. What is the intersection of rights based on gender and sexual orientation within bureaucracy? 

The military is the biggest formal organization in this country. I think it’s one of the biggest employers, actually. And it sets the tone for everyone else and historically has been a place of inclusion. If you look at race, if you look at gender, it’s been a very big protracted sit for the battles people fight to be included. 

And so this was the original idea. But then Donald Trump gets elected and essentially, he wants to ban transgender service members. And my project suddenly becomes much more about social movements than about inclusion. Trans military members were now mobilizing for their rights, and I started following the data, doing interviews and observations. 

One thing that really stuck out to me in my notes and in my coding was the role of the internet. This was 2016, 2017, and I wouldn’t call it a career change, but I switched paths. I started at Stanford as a doctoral student just in sociology, but as my dissertation continued, I realized so much of the mobilization for transgender inclusion in the military was happening on Facebook, Google Docs, Skype and they were using these digital technologies to connect with one another and create a social movement. 

And this year, I’ve been spending a lot of time in East Asia to interview political exiles who have fled Hong Kong due to their activism, and to better understand how technology influenced the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests. This second case allows me to highlight mechanisms that are important for underground social movements by comparing what is similar and different between these two cases.

How did that switch go about and what were you observing online? 

There was one main Facebook group I was close with. I was neither in the military and I identify as cisgender. It’s called SPARTA, and essentially it started off as a private Facebook group and then developed into a more formal organization for tansgender inclusion. I started interviewing people who founded SPARTA before it became a formal organization. And I got to be there and see how  this underground movement sprung into an organization. 

But going back to what happened to me, I decided to get a master’s degree in computer science because I needed to learn more about the affordances and interfaces of the internet. The background and theories, essentially. I turned to a computer science degree at Stanford and wound up getting a PhD in sociology with a minor in computer science, and then another master’s in computer science. 

I use qualitative methods and data science methods to look at the effects of technology on society. That’s how I essentially started and then ended up at UMSI. 

Tell us about your background in photography and your path to UMSI. 

In undergrad, I studied filmmaking and photography at Harvard. I was trained by documentary filmmakers and documentary photographers who used visual methods to explore the world. After graduating, I was a photographer for many years. I worked on two big projects. One was on LGBTQ+ athletes in high school and college sports teams. I photographed more than 200 athletes around the country and I traveled around the world with exhibitions of this work. 

And I also started photographing transgender military members in 2009. I wanted to document closeted military members, and that project was covered by The New York TimesCNN and NPR

My work is really about connecting with community members with the aid of digital technologies. And it was really interesting because I went around the country photographing lesbian, gay and bisexual service members. 

I was trained by documentarians and trained in visual anthropology. I would go to the homes of these people and it wasn’t just about the photo. I needed to understand the people I was trying to document. If you don’t understand their experiences, you can’t properly capture them. I’d sit with them for hours, and ask questions like “What’s it like to be closeted in the military?” “What are the dynamics?” This is all me as a photographer, but I would go back to advisors and they framed my work as classic ethnography, but I just had a camera and I was taking photos too. 

When the policy for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, I looked at the project and realized there was more I wanted to do. I’d spent two years traveling around the United States and countless hours learning about the lives of these people. I wanted to work in more than just pictures. 

Now that you’re teaching and no longer on the road, are you still working in photography? 

Well, the book I'm working on will involve photography. I'm writing an academic book about underground social movements using the case of the military as an example. I also went back and I rephotographed some of the people with their faces showing. One of the big differences between the previous photos and the ones I took later was the previous ones didn't have their faces showing. 

I'm really trying to work out how social scientists can use visual imagery aided by digital technologies more. I think a lot of our methods are kind of stuck in the 1970s to be quite honest. The fact that we rely so much on audio to learn about our respondents despite the fact we now have TikTok accounts to look at and the use of digital photography and videos to create different representations of people.

Why are social scientists stuck? I'm exploring different ways academic papers can think through visual sociology. I will probably start taking more photos again, but I couldn't during the pandemic, unfortunately. I put my camera away. It's actually still in storage because once I got here I wanted to be more focused on getting the writing and research done for my book. 

You were out photographing people and living as a full-time artist. What has it been like to transition to being a professor? 

It’s been a lot of fun. I love teaching. It’s a different lifestyle but one of the things I really like about academia is it gives you the freedom to explore your research, different methodologies and so much flexibility. I don’t see my life right now as different than when I was photographing. 

I would say one of the big motivations for my earlier work emerged from activism and trying to make society better. I really do believe in research’s ability to ultimately make society better and inspire policies that create change.

I had a whole career and life before academia. But to be honest, there is a part about being in academia that's really nice. It was really lonely to be on the road all the time.

Jeff Sheng poses in the North Quad courtyard near Rackham


Yes. I mean, imagine traveling to the south by yourself in a rental car and dropping by someone’s house, learning how they’ve escaped dying in a war, saying goodbye and then moving on to somebody else the next day.  The mental and emotional burden wasn’t the easiest in that sense. 

I look at academia now. It is more cushy. But your life as an artist comes with unpredictability. You don't have a salary. You don't have good health benefits. Sometimes, often, you don’t have any health benefits. 

I still think of myself as an artist. You can see my website and see all the photos I took. Being here now doesn’t doesn't change the fact that I made that work. I’m always going to be an artist. That never goes away.  

You’re teaching now, right? Is this the first time you teach? 

No, I’ve taught for a long time. I was an adjunct at UC Santa Barbara and taught photography and Asian American Studies for five years before starting my PhD program. It honed my teaching skills. I was a terrible teacher when I started. It’s so embarrassing now. But it’s really helped me today because I try my best to give students the most I can in the courses I’m teaching. 

What do you love about teaching? 

I think back to the most influential person in my young life. He was my adviser at Harvard. He really changed the way I thought about the impact you can make on society through art and academia. He passed away during the pandemic and it’s one of the reasons I’m still affected by it. 

I haven’t taken a photograph since he passed away. It’s not because I don’t want to, but by happenstance I got this position and I’m trying to finish up a bunch of projects. But he was an incredible teacher and mentor. 

It’s so interesting because when you think back to being 18 or 19, you don’t know what you want to study. You have no clue what you’re doing. But he saw in me this desire to change society and learn and he pushed me toward that.

I ended up in the visual studies department at Harvard. It was full of artists and documentarians and hipsters. I wanted to photograph LGBTQ+ communities and he said “That’s fantastic.” And he pushed me to do it.

There was never this conversation about “if you study sexuality, you can’t publish in top journals” which happens sometimes with students who study topics that are not mainstream. They get pushed aside.   

Something I try to emulate in my teaching is I want to inspire students to explore. Essentially, I was given the space to study what I wanted, and I met with professors almost every week. They would talk to me about my work, how society worked and the world around us. 

It’s funny now. When I told my parents I was studying art at Harvard, they were mortified. And ironically I still got that computer science degree, decades later. We laugh about this now. 

This career trajectory is resonant with how people end up pursuing information and fall into this field because it’s so broad, yet can encompass so many different interests and paths. 

That’s why I’m so happy here because it feels like a place where you can spread yourself out and think about the intersections of different fields. I have questions about culture, economy, technology, photography and visual studies. UMSI gives me the room to explore all of it without feeling the need to lock myself in. 

I’m really enjoying my time here. It’s almost like there’s not enough time to explore everything I want, which is always a great problem to have. 


See Jeff Sheng’s photographs, order his book and check out his currens projects by visiting his personal website

Read about Jeff Sheng’s research interests and time at UMSI by visiting his UMSI faculty profile