A photographer known for his giant nudes turns to dangerous work on Burma’s border.
Ask Chan Chao what kind of pictures he takes, and he’ll tell you they’re portraits. Portraits of people. The kind photographers snap all the time.
But most photographers don’t shoot subjects like these: Chao takes photos of people at war. In his images, however, there are no hair-raising fight scenes. No torched villages. No bloody carcasses begging for sympathy. Instead, the pictures are straight-up portraits.
“Art first. Politics second,” says Chao, sitting in the living room of his Mount Pleasant apartment. He’s wearing khaki pants and has rolled up the sleeves of his white button-down shirt in the 90-degree heat. His short-cropped black hair comes down a little in the front, and his black-rimmed glasses, boxy and square, give him the air of a bassist for a jazz trio.
The only sign of Chao’s political interests in this tastefully decorated apartment lurks in the bathroom. There, the lipsticked face of Burma’s living political martyr, Aung San Suu Kyi, smiles through a film of watery toothpaste. Black text rings the edge of the button, which is lodged in a cup holder above the sink. “Free Aung San Suu Kyi,” it reads. “Free Burma.”
In the living room, Chao pulls out the proofs for his first book of photographs, Burma: Something Went Wrong, to be published in June by Nazraeli Press. The book registers the vagaries of the country’s pro-democracy movement on the faces of its guerrillas—the inhabitants of rebel border camps. Most of the rebels stand alone, a few are in pairs. All assume nearly the same pose: They’re shot straight-on and centered in the frame, with the green jungle occasionally curling up behind them. Most are unsmiling. Some dress in fatigues, others wear sarongs, and still others sport jeans. A few carry arms.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the Nelson Mandela of Burma’s democracy movement. She’s the daughter of Aung San, the leader of the independence movement, who briefly united the country’s fractious ethnic groups in the 1940s while wrenching Burma free of British, and, later, Japanese rule. When Aung San was assassinated in 1947, civil war broke out. Then, in 1962, army Gen. Ne Win suspended the bedraggled constitution and installed a military government. Thousands were killed in the country’s most recent pro-democracy uprising in 1988; Aung San’s daughter has been under virtual house arrest since then. In the wake of the last round of slaughter, pro-democracy rebels fled to the country’s periphery. When they reached the borders, they set up encampments and reassembled as guerrilla troops.
Twelve years later, they remain at the border—still living in bamboo huts in the jungle and attempting to defend their slivers of territory from military incursion.
An earlier round of instability had led Chao’s family to emigrate to America. Burma’s economy, on the skids since Gen. Ne Win took power in 1962, was getting worse by the year when Chao’s folks left his hometown of Kalemyo, Burma, for Adelphi, Md., in 1978. “My family just wanted something better,” says Chao, who was 12 when he arrived in the United States. In Maryland, Chao’s father got a job as an auto mechanic, and his mother stayed home with the kids.
Chao immersed himself in America. So much so “I’d forgotten what I’d assimilated from,” he says. So in 1996, he decided to visit Burma to find his relatives. And like any good American, he trotted down to the Burmese embassy for a visa. But he soon discovered there was a problem: The embassy knew of his father’s involvement with an American group of Aung San Suu Kyi supporters. “Needless to say,” Chao says dryly, “[the supporters] have a conflict with the embassy staff.”
The embassy denied Chao an entrance visa. Undaunted, he flew to Indonesia, where he reapplied at the Burmese embassy in Jakarta. But when he showed them his passport, embassy officials found the stamp from their U.S. branch. Again, entry was denied.
Rather than turn back, Chao took a tip from the pro-democracy rebels: He went to the border. Armed with nothing but letters of introduction, he hopped a truck through the jungle and landed at a camp near the Thai border. Camera in hand, he started snapping pictures of the folks he met there: men, women, and children of varied ethnicities and political agendas, united in fighting the ruling military junta.
Chao picked up photography while in college at the University of Maryland, after giving up on the practical stuff. “I tried engineering, and then I tried architecture,” Chao explains, “but I didn’t have the discipline.” All that physics just wasn’t his cup of tea, he says. By his junior year, he’d wandered into urban planning and photography. He started by shooting campus goings-on for UMD’s student paper, the Diamondback, photographing bands like Fishbone and the Butthole Surfers. “That was the cool part,” he says, eyes brightening. “I got to be on stage.”
While Chao enjoyed the view from the dais, those who know him say that lust for the spotlight is not a Chan Chao thing. A year after quitting college a few courses shy of graduation, he got a job as a lab tech with the Corcoran College of Art and Design photo department. For the next eight years, photo students retrieved their film canisters and reels from Chao, who assigned them darkroom enlargers from behind a Dutch door. He was well-liked and amiable—and never one to make a spectacle.
Except, of course, with his photographs. Starting in the early ’90s, Chao shot a series of monumental nude triptychs—each over 7 feet high—that blurred the boundaries between portraiture and eroticism. The first half-dozen were all women. “I started to hear talk,” Chao recalls with a chuckle. Huge nude women might well make cause for scandal. “Another male out doing female nudes,” he says, mimicking bleating PCers. He figured the easiest way to dodge the criticism was to shoot guys, too. “But that would be too easy,” he says. So he kept on with the women. (During three years of shooting nudes, he photographed only a handful of men.)
Soon Chao had models volunteering for him. Rumor had it that he was respectful. “I talked to the models and asked, ‘Does it feel like you’re being objectified?’” he recalls. “They told me what to watch out for,” he adds. Like what? “Well, to concentrate on their faces.”
Still, it’s a marvel that he got so many women—more than 25—to drop their dresses for his camera. “The scale set the tone that I was serious,” he explains. “If I showed [the pictures] to a woman and they were really tiny,” he chuckles, reaching into his pockets like he’s got some greasy fingerprint-stained pictures hiding in there, “they would have been suspicious.”
Chao certainly flexed those trust muscles in Burma. When he arrived at the Karen settlement in 1996, camp residents didn’t exactly take a shine to him. “I wasn’t fluent with the language anymore,” he recalls, “and I didn’t know anything of the history or the culture.
“On the first day, I only took pictures of people who slept next to me,” Chao says, “because I got to talk to them.” Confidence spread rapidly. “One gets comfortable, then the next,” the photographer says. “By the third one, [they’re] even more comfortable.” Most camp residents eventually agreed to be photographed. “They needed exposure,” Chao says. “For a while, Burma was in the eyes of the international community. Then all this other stuff faded Burma into two paragraphs in the last page of major newspapers.”
Chao spent eight days at the camp, figuring he’d never return. “I came to Asia to see relations,” he says, “and this was my consolation prize. I made pictures because that’s what I do.”
Back in the States, Chao printed the photographs and stuck them in boxes. Only after some friends asked about his trip and caused him to take a second look did the wheels start turning. His mentor and former UMD photo teacher John Gossage smelled a book.
“These were not just pictures of people standing in the jungle,” Gossage recalls. “It seemed obvious from the first shooting that the pictures [told a story.]” And the story they told wasn’t your average bleeding heart tale. “For most people who do political art, politics is first, art is second,” says Gossage. “For Chan, it’s artistry first. It’s set in a context that has political meaning.”
Soon after showing his photos around, Chao got a letter from a man who slept next to him at the camp. “That guy was a leader of 200 men,” Chao recalls, now sitting with legs crossed. “He sent a letter saying the camp had been overrun and torched, and that two of his men had been killed. That was the final straw.” It was time to turn the seed of an idea into a full-fledged project.
Chao’s second trip to the Burmese border, in 1997, was a six-week odyssey. He roamed from camp to camp, shooting everyone from low-ranking soldiers to commanders—and exhausting nearly all of the 300 rolls of film he brought with him.
While we’re hunched over the blue lines of the book, I point to a photo of a man in jeans and a striped polo. “That’s David,” Chao says, like he’s talking about a cousin. “He was there for a meeting….He’s from a different cluster.” David is a Karen. His Christian name is the product of 19th-century American Baptist missionaries; his Western outfit, according to Chao, “is a reaction to the Burmans, who dress traditionally.” He points to the facing photo of a man named Hal Aye, who wears a sarong draped at his waist.
At the camps, men are the majority. Soldiers alternate between the camp and the front line, where they defend their land from an army that vastly outnumbers them. At home, they tend gardens and attend meetings. The women have set up schools. According to Chao, “They try to have a normal life.”
But normality doesn’t equal safety, and Chao’s second trip to the border found him entangled in the regional drama. He was picked up in the jungle by a Thai border patrol, who detained him, claiming they’d drop him off at the nearest town. They didn’t. Instead, they took him to their camp, barraged him with questions, and rifled through his notebooks.
“That was one of the hardest nights I’ve ever spent,” Chao says. “No one knew where I was, so that made me a little nervous.” The next day, the guards made good on their word. “They told me not to come [to the border] again,” he adds.
But Chao did return to the border, just a couple of days later. And he returned for a third trip in 1998.
That year, Chao spent a month in the country’s western end, near the Indian border. And he finally met up with his relatives—fulfilling the mission which brought him to Burma in the first place. With a guide, he traveled from New Delhi through the restricted zone of Northeast India. Gossage is certain that during this third visit, border agents “were really looking for [Chao].” To avoid detection by Indian and Burmese authorities, he snipped his hair at a local barber and tried to fit in—his shared ethnicity with the Indians of that region helped. “We’re from the same ethnic group, so I blend in very easily.” Still, he traveled in darkness. “At night, at checkpoints, guards tend to skim over things.” In the retelling, Chao sounds unconcerned. He got his photos. “He’s industrious—and brave about these things,” says Gossage. “I don’t go anywhere where I’m going to be shot.” CP
“Chan Chao” runs through June 4 at Signal 66, 926 N St. NW (rear), (202) 842-3436.