Guajibo Chief, Colombia 1972




JOHN CHAO, a highly regarded Chinese-American photojournalist, was born in Taiwan & grew up in Brazil and Peru before arriving in the United States at age eleven. Nine years later, in 1973, he returned to South America to photograph indigenous tribes in Colombia, Panama, Peru, and Bolivia. The two-year sojourn refined his skills as a young photographer.


In 1975, he helped a life-long friend and mentor Cornell Capa with the formation of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in NYC. In 1978, he was recruited by Rich Clarkson to be on the staff of the premier photojournalism newspapers in the country, the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Larry Hatterberg
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At the annual Aries birthday party in 1984 with
Cornell Capa
LIFE Magazine photographer,
founder of the International Center 
of Photography,
mentor, friend and godfather.  
Photo: Rebecca Collette

Overlooking the Wang Poo River in 1979 before the explosive modernization that changed the landscape of Shanghai. Chao and Larry Hatteberg were the first Western Photojournalists selected to cover a gubernatorial trade mission after President Nixon’s visit.  Photo: William Hoch

Click to read Larry Hatteberg Foreword on an upcoming book.

His tenure at the award-winning newspaper was highlighted by being selected as one of the first Western Journalists to visit China. During the ten-day tour, Chao’s photographs were historically the first images wire-transmitted out of China by the Associated Press (AP).

At the 1980 Democratic Convention, Chao’s iconic and prescient image of Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy made the front page of the New York Times while his photograph graced the covers and pages of many of the top international magazines.

Donald R. Katz worked on two articles with Chao for GEO Magazine. They never traveled together. The only time their paths crossed was at this airport in the Arctic Circle when Chao got off a flight, and Katz got on the flight. It was a policy instigated by the cutting-edge GEO editors who were sensitive not to have disciplines illustrate one-another. Chao embraced the idea while Katz, the writer had his reservations and moments of frustration. Katz went on to become the founder, CEO of Audible which sold to Amazon in 2008 for 300 million. 

At the 2016 Sun and Fun Airshow in Florida with Thomas Hsueh, a friend of almost 40-years. Hsueh was instrumental in the modernization of Taiwan’s tele-communication and airline businesses. In 2014, at the age of 81, Hsueh decided to start an airplane company in the United States and China.
Photo: Tim McIntosh

In 1980, during a yearlong National Geographic  assignment in Taiwan, Chao’s career path changed when he met Tom Hsueh, an American he refers to as the ”Ted Turner of Taiwan.” At the time, Hsueh was the Chairman of the Taiwan Olympic Committee and suggested that Chao represent Taiwan in the 1984 Olympics. A new event called windsurfing was being exhibited and no one knew anything about it.

Chao saw this as an opportunity and quickly learned the sport of ‘walking on water.’ Seven months later, he appeared at the starting line in Long Beach, California and it established a life-changing passion for the wind. In 1993, he founded, published and edited his own lifestyle publication, the American Windsurfer Magazine.

Not quite ready to give up his seat after an hour-long F-16 ride with Captain Allan ‘Doc’ Gabel. The 1996 flight was the first civilian ride approved by the Pentagon after an eight-year moratorium. Photo: New Mexico National Guard

After winning the New Hampshire Primary in 2003, a friend watching CNN’s coverage of John Kerry  leaving the stage said, “I could have read War and Peace during that exchange!”   Photo: David Burnett

Senator John Kerry graced the cover of a 1996 issue. Some twenty thousand extra copies were printed but sat in a New Hampshire warehouse for eight-years.

After polling last in Iowa, Chao decided to raid the warehouse and quickly gave copies of the windsurfer Kerry to voters throughout the Granite State. Kerry later touted the exposé as key to his success in securing momentum to become the 2004 Democratic nominee. 

Chao’s work always harkens back to the environment, human rights, and the championing of indigenous cultures around the world. His timeless WATER IS LIFE posters against the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL) at Standing Rock, North Dakota is a notable example. Proceeds from these posters go to protestors who are still incarcerated, two of them until 2021.

Standing Rock, North Dakota, in the winter of 2016, with Water Warriors protesting the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL).  Danielle Vrchota, Jess Lee Perry, Laura Lafoia Ava-Tesimale, and Noeline Villebruneach with a remarkable story, each would be imprisoned today by the government, if they protest against a corporate sponsored pipeline. Photo: John Wathen

John Chao, Rich Clarkson, Brian Lanker

The late Brian Lanker pointing out the humor of a Chao photograph to Rich Clarkson at the 2009 unveiling of a book on the Topeka Capitol-Journal photographers. It was a book sponsored by National Geographic Magazine for the three day festive reunion. The gathering was instigated by Lanker and it proved to be our last hurrah with the Pulitzer Prize winner.  Photo: David Alan Harvey

For five-decades his work has appeared and are in the collection of Time, LIFE, Newsweek, Fortune, GEO, German GEO, Der Spiegel, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian Magazine, Merchant Bank, Metropolitan Museum, Nelson-Atkins Museum, de Menil Foundation, International Center of Photography, Goldman Sachs, Rochester Institute of Technology, Topeka Capital-Journal, New York Times, Eugene Register-Guard and his own publication the American Windsurfer Magazine. He was a lecturer at the International Center of Photography and was one of a few William A. Reedy Memorial lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Chao resides in Mosier, Oregon, where he has acquired a love for scriptwriting and a passion for projects such as helping his 87-year-old friend, The Ted Turner of Taiwan, launch a fleet of new aircraft into the aviation market.

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Tibetan Mastiffs almost sneaked back in a suitcase. Drive to Mt.Everest in 2018