Just the Facts

Harvard University


An exploration through photography and video of the various sub-communities of individualism — identified by such considerations as sexuality, class, social status, age or religion — that exist in the urban centers of contemporary Mainland China

Jeff Sheng

I am currently teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a full time lecturer/adjunct professor between the departments of Studio Art — teaching Introductory and Intermediate/Advanced Photography — and Asian American Studies. I am also working on two projects “Revolutions of Memory,” which I began on my Fellowship, and another series called “Fearless,” which is an activist-inspired photography project on high school and college sports team athletes who self identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. In the past year or so, I have had twenty or so exhibitions of this project, while also generating interest in my other photography work as well. I guess one can say I am an “emerging” professional artist!

The Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship was the first major fellowship that I won as an artist. When most artist grants are only for “mid-career” professionals, having a grant that is designated for artists who have just graduated from college is an incredibly unique and much-needed program. This period of time is generally when most students who have studied and pursued the creative fields as undergraduates give up and decide to no longer pursue these interests because of financial reasons.

On a personal level, the award allowed me to travel and live in Mainland China and to begin a project in which I am still engaged, and is now part of my so-called “professional” body of work. In my original plans of the Fellowship, I had conceived a body of work that was very much in the vein of traditional documentary photography, exploring sub-cultures and identity. However, while traveling through China on the Fellowship, I became interested in how photography could perhaps challenge the ideas of truth and the “document,” and I began to work on a series of panoramic photographs that dealt with my familial and personal past, and hence current identity. My grandparents were born in China, and I began to retrace the various places in the country that they had traveled through during their youth, before they fled the country in the late 1940s prior to the Communists taking power. But instead of taking images of these locations in a traditional manner, I decided to use Photoshop and digital imaging to piece together multiple snapshots of the locations in order to create large-scale 360-degree panoramic images. This piecing together of multiple fragments and the alteration of perception through the panoramic image was similar to the gesture of reconstructing memory and familial narrative. I extended this project to also explore various ways in which sub-cultures are represented (or misrepresented), and also to examine my own identity(ies) vis-à-vis the constructed photographic image.

After completing the Fellowship, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, and I completed a master of fine arts in studio art in 2007. Incidentally, the work that I did while on the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship became the foundation for what eventually became my thesis work in graduate school.

As I think back, winning the Fellowship was the first time a major commitment (other than from myself) was made towards my development of a career as an artist. The monetary amount of the award is a large sum of money to invest in a person and an art project. Not only did I receive a financial benefit, but I experienced a psychological boost as well. I developed a mentality that if an organization was willing to consider me for such a large artist grant, then I should likewise feel confident in my own abilities as a young artist and pursue this earnestly. Winning the award also gave me inspiration to apply for other grants as well, hopefully beginning a positive track record of grant applications. Incidentally, I won a New Americans Soros Fellowship the following year in graduate school, and the experience of applying and receiving the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship really helped me tailor my grant application.

If I had it to do over, I would happily apply again for the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship. I won the Fellowship on my third attempt of trying! I am not sure if I would be where I am today in terms of my working career as an artist and now an educator in a University of California studio art department, without the Fellowship and the experience it provided.

If doing it over, I would definitely chosen the same country (Mainland China). My project shifted slightly in focus while I was traveling, but the core elements of what I wanted to explore (sub-cultures, sexuality, personal narrative, my values as an American vs. those of the local Chinese) remained the same. My medium of photography, and also occasionally video, stayed the same. I think that the flexibility to adapt your project during the Fellowship year is a good quality to keep in place because new ideas and inspirations should come up while actually traveling in the country of purpose. I think that is completely acceptable (and maybe should even be encouraged). This kind of trial and error process is very much a principle of art making. I know very few art projects that end the exact same way they are initially conceived on paper.

The Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship is an enormous resource for those who specifically want to pursue a career in the arts. Being an artist now is so difficult with the lack of public funding, and the opportunity to win a grant such as the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship right after college is incredibly rare. My advice is to really think carefully about what one’s goals are in life and how this Fellowship can help to further those objectives.