In the summer of 1996 and 1997 the Burmese-born photographer, Chan Chao, travelled along the Burma-Thai border seeking out student activists, many of whom had participated in the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations, now known as the "8888 rebellion." Since 1962 the country, divided into seven ethnic states, has been under the rule of military junta, and since the 1980s, has seen the growth of rebel groups that oppose it. Chao's series documented the some of these rebels, as well as exiled politicians and students living in the Karen and Chin states, all of whom participated in an insurgency against the military government. For the Burmese portraits, Chao employed straightforward poses and neutral lighting, addressing his subjects with painstaking formality. The subjects are, for the most part, young men, whose motley clothing, slender bodies and occasional scars bespeak their life on the outskirts of official society. Nevertheless, these photographs may not conform to one's mental image of a "rebel army." Chao's sympathetic portraits capture not only a political position, but the playfulness, tenderness, and vulnerability of his subjects. Chao gained broad recognition when he and another journalistic photographer, Stephen Dean, were included, after much debate among the curators, in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.
Chan Chao was born in Kalemyo, Burma in 1966. He and his family left Burma for the United States in 1978. Chao's photographs are in the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the L.A. County Museum of Art and the LaSalle Bank Photograph Collection.