A Burmese photographer brought images of his homeland to Colgate University this week in an exhibit he hopes educates people about the plight of the nation’s refugees.
Chan Chao was touted as one of the most “talked about artists” at the Whitney Museum 2002 Biennial, a landmark exhibition for modern artists in the United States.
On Monday night, a panel discussion was held at the university’s Picker Art Gallery, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition.
Linn Underhill, assistant professor of art and art history, was impressed by how Chao’s photos capture the essence of his subjects.
“There is a sense of stillness, courage, and self-containment in these people; an openness to be photographed. The artfulness of these photographs is compelling and that is what draws us in and makes us wonder about them,” Underhill said.
Chao was joined by Underhill, Hannah Newhall Sanger ’96, a Watson fellow recipient who spent 18 months in Thailand working with Karenni peoples, and Thomas Brackett, professor of computer science emeritus and president of the Brackett Foundation, an organization that raises money for Burmese refugees to receive an education.
Chao left Burma for the United States when he was 12. At age 30, he realized he needed to return to Burma to reconnect with his past. After two failed attempts to secure a visa, he entered the country in 1996, staying in the borderlands between Thailand and Burma. He began to photograph the people he met.
Chao describes his photographs as having an “ordinary style” that carry a lot of weight. He wants his audience to “read” the personalities and body language of the subjects; a subtle means of telling the life stories of these people rather than accompanying each photograph with text.
The collection of photos, he said, speaks to the audience in a collective voice about the refugees’ situation.
Burma, located in southeastern Asia, is also known as Myanmar. It is an ethnically complex country of 46 million people, with nearly 12 major ethnic groups and scores of smaller tribes.
More than 100 languages are spoken there, and communication between groups is limited. The country has undergone myriad political and economic troubles.
The photographs are “apolitical and political,” said Vice President for Academic Advancement Jane Pinchin, but “beautiful above all else.”
Chao noted that his reasons for going to Burma in the first place were personal, but once he heard the stories of his subjects and began to correspond with them, he turned his personal wishes into a project.
“It was their personal experiences that made these pictures. I think everyone wore their personal experiences on their faces and had a desire to tell their stories,” said Chao of his subjects. “You have to show the whole range of human emotion as it exists in an environment like this.”
By Jess Buchsbaum