FOREWORD: LARRY HATTEBERG
LARRY HATTEBERG is an Emmy Award Inductee and a storytelling legend who “touches” people with his broadcast journalism. Larry’s “Hatteberg’s People” is the longest-running television series in Kansas, and his book “Larry Hatteberg’s Kansas People,” based on his television series, is a best-seller. He’s been a Photographer, Chief Photographer, Assistant News Director, Executive News Director, Managing Editor, and Prime-Time Anchor of KAKE News. There are very few significant awards he hasn’t won. Named National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Television News Cameraman of the Year, Larry is the only member to have received the award twice. Over 85 local, state, and national awards for television news photography and reporting, including setting broadcast standards and winning the Edward R Murrow Award. He is the past president of the National Press Photographer Association (NPPA).
TO BE BORN, IS OUR CHANCE TO LIVE. It is not our decision where or how that occurs. It is our decision what we do with that precious time called ‘life’. For some, the clock ticks without mercy. For others, like John Chao, time means not nearing the end, but finding new life in the journey.
John Chao has always found new paths leading to both professional and personal discovery.These photos from his exhibition are visual moments from a complicated and creative existence.
In 1979 our paths crossed in Kansas. It was the year Mao Zedong opened China up to the world after his repressive regime had closed it for 30 years. Suddenly, there was a crack in the armor and the outside world was hungry to know about the forgotten kingdom.
John worked for the Topeka Capital-Journal newspaper and I was located to the south in Wichita, Kansas working at KAKE-TV. In a whirlwind of quick decisions, Kansas governor John Carlin decided to make a trade trip to China. John and I were selected to accompany him.
I had never met John before, but we quickly developed a rapport. We were both young, excited about our professions and had a lifetime of waiting to be discovered. John’s quick
smile and open personality was his weapon of choice. It was disarming. It was warm. More important, it was ‘real’.
John photographed his way through China as if each shutter click revealed a new friend. It did. John was not only collecting experiences, but people.
In John’s work, I believe he creates the ‘scent’ of a memory. Photographs reliving and reflecting his own life’s experiences. Bold in their exuberance for the moment, but tender as if remembering an old friend.
Since those days together over 40 years ago, one of John’s pictures is still hanging in my home. It’s a photograph of a young ‘me’ in a car unable to close the door because of Chinese children who were curious about us. Our camera, our appearance and our strange ways were overwhelming to them. This was the new generation of Chinese citizens who had been frozen in time for decades. As I attempted to take a light-meter reading, John captured the moment. For me, this one picture embodied why we were there. A country, curious about the outside world and wanting to be part of the future. John captured the moment, literally, the birth of a new nation.
John Chao’s visual work and his quest are talents echoed by the legends of photography.
In the early 1950’s, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of street photography, defined his ‘decisive moment’ concept as one that occurs when the photographer’s eye captures a psychological moment with those in the viewfinder in ‘real life’ and the elements spontaneously align in a fraction of a second.
In John Chao’s recent book “50-Year Vision Quest” and in his exhibition, we see that concept illustrated in many of his photographs. Yet, there is so much more.
In Columbia, a photograph of a mother hauling water with her small son in tow. A shack in the background and a foreground of dirt complete the image. The camera, and the moment reflect the pain of the subject for the viewer. We feel the woman’s station in life, her back bent with the weight of the water. She moves forward with an uncertain future. Her child clinging to her clothing. We ‘feel’ the photograph as much as we ‘see’ it. That woman could be one of us. Her future unknown. For a moment, we wonder what we would do if our places were exchanged.
John’s photography is a journey of continuous education that takes us all with him. We are passengers on a mind-journey that has been developing in John for five decades.
From the San Blas Islands in Panama, a picture of a family rowing a canoe to visit a nearby settlement. The father, in charge with the oars, the mother in her perceived place with child. The children on the end of the boat, the older one with an oar, the younger boy with a stare that is difficult to forget. The texture of the photograph, with hard contrast on the canoe surrounded by the white distant shores, reflect our own uncertain futures.
John Chao’s photographs are poetry in abstract. To speak of John, one must understand the world he has conquered. It’s not just photojournalism that has framed his life, it’s his multidimensional talent in photography, writing, publishing, script-writing, and the intense way he forms friendships by the lives he touches.
From an early age he was a traveler, interested in the world and its people. But never from afar. Always up close and personal.
John was born in Taiwan and as a child lived in Brazil and Peru. Entering the United States at age 11, those early years would be prescient to his career.
In 1973, he hit the road, traveling to South America to photograph indigenous tribes. It was there in the jungles his photojournalism began to take shape. His skills with the camera honed. His life’s view focused. The camera and John were to become one.
John has always felt his camera was a ‘passport for adventure’, but I doubt, even he understood the powerful way it would change his life.
In 1975, working with the legendary photographer Cornell Capa, he helped Capa form the International Center of Photography in New York. Capa was John’s mentor and friend.
His 50-year quest brought him in touch with photography’s power structure at all levels. Working with the legendary Rich Clarkson at the Topeka-Capitol Journal newspaper, John was one of the first western journalists to visit China. Over time, John roamed the halls of the largest publications. His pictures appear everywhere.
His photos are now part of the history of Time Magazine, Life, National Geographic, GEO, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and a myriad of other publications.
But to define John’s life by the frame of photography would be a mistake. A chance meeting with the chairman of the Taiwan Olympic committee in 1980 would make John’s life go a different direction. He suggested to John that he should learn a new sport called ‘Windsurfing’. It was to be a new Olympic event. John was so taken with it, that in 1993 he published and edited his own publication called the American Windsurfer Magazine. It continues today on-line.
He has photographed the powerful, the peaceful, the protestors and the penurious. In all those circumstances the people weren’t just photos. They became part of John’s inner circle of life experiences.
On a trip in 2018, John took a photo of a man sleeping in a rail car in India. It was this trip where John changed his camera systems. In doing so, he worried that the new camera’s technology was ruining what he had spent his life perfecting. The technology took away the ‘challenge’ of creating the shot and the talent of ‘mastering’ the moment. The camera was doing the work. He was becoming the bystander. Photography became easier with the new technology, gone he worried, was the art.
Over his 50-year-quest, his photographs surround you. Especially in this exhibition, they are large, powerful, nearly over-powering moments captured by a sensitive man searching the world for his life-stories. We look at the photographs, read the narrative behind them and discover that in each one, roams a teacher. John was their student.
What John Chao was learning wasn’t in the abstract. It was the ‘now’. John was living his pictures, the people and their stories. John was the ‘student’ of those he froze in time. In his travels, he didn’t shoot from afar. Instead, he was close and intimate listening to the narratives, understanding their culture, and growing from within.
In the photographic work for his book and exhibition, this was the last photograph taken. It has a gentle touch. A softness that subtle color tones depict. A lone man on a makeshift raft making his way through life. Aren’t we all that man? These are the questions that his life’s work asks of the viewer. It’s not a heavy burden. Instead, these are moments of light. Soul-sharing a man’s heart is John’s goal.
Never is that more evident than his work at Standing Rock North Dakota in 2016. Thousands gathered to oppose a pipeline that was to snake over Indian land and threaten their water. John decided to make the trip, bringing in supplies for others who took up the cause. Most had little money, but they believed that the government had over stepped its bounds. A solidarity developed between John and many of those who hoped to right a wrong. He photographed, sometimes spending the night in 20 degree cold. Fighting his perceived privilege and wanting to help, one of his photographs of the camp became a fund-raising effort to help those protesters who were imprisoned.
The photograph is commanding. Horizontally framed by a stark winter landscape, the power of a protest echoes the power that a single photograph can make.
John Chao is not an easy man to define. He is complicated, deep, and resonant of purpose.
Meeting John, for me, was a gift. Our lives have crossed, parted and crossed again.
Now, seeing his 50-Year Vision Quest go from book to exhibition is extraordinary. This is not simply an assemblage of pictures. It is a collection of lives, intertwined together by a man who is tantalized by the world, but who also sees the flaws in our human condition.
JOHN CHAO RETROSPECTIVE images 2021-1971 is a masterpiece of thought, photography, and stories woven in sync with his thirst for understanding. It is a master class for the eye and food for the mind as John Chao shares his life-long quest with all of us.
Larry Hatteberg, Wichita, Kansas 2, 2, 2022
VIDEO: Topeka Capital-Journal