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“Something Went Wrong”

At Numark Gallery to March 30

Even a quick glance at photographer Chan Chao’s Numark Gallery exhibition communicates something very clear: Chao is a man who knows how to take a flattering picture. Virtually everyone who sat for one of Chao’s portraits looks beautiful. In many cases, his subjects are fashionably dressed; in others, they’re suggestively undressed. Photographed in idyllic natural settings and viewed from a respectful middle distance, Chao’s subjects are bathed in a light that is somewhat unearthly but demonstrably favorable.

What’s odd is that Chao is not a photographer for Vogue, GQ, or the Banana Republic catalog—places where most of his photographs would look thoroughly at home. Rather, Chao documents refugees and pro-democracy rebels who live in the jungle of Burma, waiting for their chance to bring down the military dictatorship that has ruled their homeland for decades. Be that as it may, they certainly don’t look the part of downtrodden outcasts—an irony that makes Chao’s work profoundly enigmatic.

Chao, a Washington-based photographer of Burmese descent, traveled at some personal risk to make these pictures, which will also appear in this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York City. Each of his photographs—the 17 now on display at the Numark Gallery, plus dozens of others included in an accompanying catalog—consists of one or two people, each sitting, standing, or kneeling for the camera in front of a picturesque natural backdrop that fades into a warm, soft-focus blend of blue and green.

Occasionally, Chao photographs scruffier subjects or sitters who wear out-of-date Western castoffs or camouflage gear—features that hint at the violence that occurs, presumably, out of his camera’s range. But the vast majority of those photographed by Chao look peaceful, healthy, and fabulous.

Consider Karenni Girl: Seated in a bamboo hut, she is covered by a stylish black wrap and a bold red veil and wears so many multicolored bracelets, necklaces, and earrings that she could easily pass for a princess. Or consider Kyaw Htoo & Robey, which features a father holding a distracted child on his knee. It’s even odds as to which item in the photograph is more eye-catching: the father’s baby-blue plaid skirt or his unclothed, nicely sculpted torso.

Then there’s Thaung Tin & Friend, an image of two young men seated comfortably on a tree stump. In the piece, Thaung Tin idly fingers an acoustic guitar while his friend looks crisp and hip in a white undershirt and black slacks. Together, they seem the epitome of casual cool. And they’re hardly the only ones: The young woman in Tin Taw Liang accessorizes her forest-green fatigues with a blue-and-white scarf, the man in Ni Lian sports a striking lavender-colored fur hat, and the woman in Than Than Win carries a fabric purse that matches her head scarf.

But even more striking is the panoply of bare-torsoed men Chao documents, most of whom appear in the catalog but not the Numark show. Zaw Lin Htway, for instance, rises out of a waist-high stream, trails of water dripping gently down his pecs. Saw Nay Htoo, also bare to the waist, stands dramatically lit within a dark, unidentifiable space; he stares intently into the camera, one hand thrust decisively into a pocket of his khakis. And Win Soe poses within a bluish-green forest with a piece of wood—possibly an ax handle—slung over his shoulder in a pose that maximizes the amount of visible musculature.

This is not the first time Chao has focused on the human form. A prior project, begun in the early ’90s, consisted of monumental, 7-foot-tall photographs of nudes, mostly women. Though the color prints in “Something Went Wrong” are more modest in size—either 24 by 20 inches or 35 by 29 inches—their tonal range makes them equally eye-catching: Despite their lush green settings, most of these images look curiously washed out, as if they had been lit with fluorescent lights. The somewhat unreal aura of these pieces makes it easy to classify Chao’s work as staged portraiture rather than documentary photojournalism—but it also makes it difficult to uncover the artist’s intentions.

What does Chao want his viewers to see? Does he want us to focus on his subjects by analyzing their physical appearance and facial expressions? Or does he want us to empathize with the fate of their disenfranchised culture? The central problem with Chao’s work is that his project succeeds in neither scenario. His images don’t present us with enough material to gauge the inner lives that would make his subjects more than just models. Nor do they provide enough historical and cultural context for us to understand his sitters’ common travails.

Chao’s photographs are notable for capturing his subjects at their most expressionless. Each stares blankly at the camera—not unkindly, but also betraying neither anger nor sadness. Nor, for that matter, do they evince any other emotion. Indeed, the only facial expression of any note here is the one worn by the baby in Nyunt Nyunt & Hla Ya Min. The baby’s frown—combined with his furrowed brow—contrasts with the blank mask worn by his mother and everyone else pictured in the show.

Chao has said that he informs his subjects that their photographs might be shown publicly and suggests that they pose as they would like to be seen by others. But could all of his subjects in the exhibition—and most of the several dozen others in the catalog—really have presented such universally inscrutable expressions by chance alone? Shouldn’t someone, somewhere, have flashed Chao a hint of a frown, smile, or grimace? Neither answer to this question offers the viewer much satisfaction. If Chao did enforce some unanimity in facial expressions, rejecting those that deviated from what he had in mind, then his photographs lose their value as individualized portraits. If, on the other hand, all the people he met in Burma truly exuded such expressionlessness, then his work fails to pierce their inscrutability in any meaningful way—and thus communicates precious little about their inner worlds.

Does Chao want us to engage with his subjects politically more than psychologically, then? Although the photographer has insisted that he puts artistry before all else, his selection of a politically charged title for his show suggests that social issues do have some importance for him. If that’s the case, however, Chao has made little effort to educate the viewer about a long-running and complicated conflict half a world away. His minimalist titles list only the names of those pictured. (Or, as is the case with some portraits of rebel soldiers—none of which are in the Numark show—they list only military affiliation, rendered in obscure, unexplained acronyms.) And the exhibition itself offers zero historical or cultural context, even though the book’s preface and afterword suggest various ethnic and political rifts that would appear to be relevant to understanding the people Chao has chronicled.

If these images didn’t decontextualize their subjects so thoroughly, they could pack much more of a punch—a point made clear by the “Conversations Through Photography” exhibition, displayed at American University’s Watkins Gallery last month. That show, which featured works about residents of the Middle East by both Israeli and Palestinian photographers, included at least two artists who, like Chao, have attempted to portray dispossessed subjects with both unflinching empathy and unconventional artistry.

The first, Noel Jabbour, photographed Palestinian refugees whose obvious deprivation contrasted strongly with the dazzling color surrounding them in the refugee camps. The second, an Israeli named Nitzan Makover, broke stereotypes by photographing successful Palestinian career women. In both series of images, viewers benefited from some context. In Jabbour’s photographs, the color of life coexisted with, but did not negate, the obvious conditions of poverty. In Makover’s images, the women’s steely-eyed determination was impossible to miss. To be sure, both Jabbour’s and Makover’s work resonates more easily in this country than Chao’s, because they focus on a region that most Americans are reasonably familiar with. But measured by their combination of content and aesthetics, Chao’s photographs don’t meet the standards set by either Jabbour’s or Makover’s work.

Which isn’t to say that Chao’s photographs have no artistic value. They offer an unconventional take on a bread-and-butter photographic subject and, shorn of any pretensions of being either documentary photojournalism or psychological portraiture, succeed quite nicely as fashion photography. To his credit, Chao struggles to prevent viewers from looking at his images so innocently. But if his photographs were our only frame of reference, understanding exactly what went wrong in Burma would be impossible. CP