Wheaton magazine

Volume 22 // Issue 1
Wheaton magazine // Winter 2019
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PHOTOS BY JOHN CHAO '78

Photography as Faith

I spent a few hours in HoneyRock's Heritage Center in Three Lakes, Wisconsin over the summer looking for photos from the early years of Vanguard—Wheaton’s college transition program that is the subject of an article in this issue of the magazine.

At the Heritage Center, I came across a shallow, blue and white photographic paper box from the 1980s. The box originally held 50 sheets of 11x14 medium weight glossy photo paper. Now—according to its hand-written-in-permanent-marker label—the box contains photos of "VANGUARDS" by "mostly J. Chao '76" and "a few others." 

Indeed, the box was brimming with beautiful, black and white documentary-style photographs of exhausted, excited, and determined 18-year-olds from the 70s and 80s. The photos capture the experience of students in these first years of Vanguard, framing people in the midst of purposeful challenges.

Wondering if this photographer was still in the craft, and if he'd grant permission to use the photos, I looked him up. My search found that Chao had been a photojournalist for Newsweek, Time, and National Geographic. My interest was piqued, so I shot him an email. When he responded, he said that he'd be traveling, so we took up an email correspondence during October and November 2018, portions of which follow here.

Q (Audino): As I understand it, you didn't just go to HoneyRock to shoot photos; you were also a Vanguard participant? 

A (Chao): Yes, I think it was the first or second time they ran Vanguards that I first got there. I remember I couldn’t afford it and Bud Williams M.A. ’66 called me and offered a scholarship and that is how I got to go. I must have liked it to go back and photograph it 3 or 4 more times.

Do you remember what you were trying to capture in your photographs of Vanguard?

The show that I did with these photos was called “Dreams and Prayers”; the subtitle of the show might answer your question: “It’s the illusions that are transformed by the realities of my wilderness.”

Do you remember what you were shooting with when you were photographing Vanguard?

Mostly on my Leica M-2 and M-5. I remember driving with Harvey Chrouser ’34—who was an amazing man, full of grace and a Master Sergeant, a beacon of light! We stopped to take some pictures he wanted, got back in the car and drove off. When he turned, I heard this rumbling noise on the roof, and I look to the side and saw my Leica M-2 flying off the roof. That sinking feeling stung for a long, long time, while poor Harvey just drove in silence not knowing how to console this poor struggling alumnus. Money was tight all around.

Interview continues after the photos.

Were you an active photographer for your entire time YOU WERE a student at Wheaton?

When the camera becomes your alter ego, your eyes to see the world and to see yourself, it teaches you to be in the moment, to be in the zone. When it becomes part of your life, it takes over.

School was just about getting a degree, but photography took me places and taught me about life. This is why I still follow wherever it takes me. This is why I squeezed four years into eight in Wheaton. It is about being in the moment and trusting where it takes you.

Do you remember any of your classes at Wheaton?


My mother always told me I had a pointed rear end, meaning I could never sit long enough to study. I was a terrible student, so classes were not memorable to me. But I loved Douglas Gilbert, the photography teacher, who was a LOOK magazine staffer. But the one-on-one times we had in school, and at his home with his family, those were the classes I cherished. I loved Mel Lorenzen whose personality filled the room with light and irony; he made you laugh and think. Then, of course, Jerry Hawthorne, whom I never took a class with but was dearly adopted by, as if I were one of his students. What amazing educators! 

Tell me about your relationship with Jerry Hawthorne (Gerald "Jerry" Hawthorne '51, M.A. '54).

When I lived in Peru as a kid, I remember meeting a missionary couple. They were Bert and Colleen Elliot. I retained little about them besides the facts that we met in Trujillo at a friend's house, they came and visited us, and that Bert was an affable gentle of a man. Years later, I briefly met Jane (Jane Elliot Hathorne '53) and Jerry Hawthorne in Wheaton and made the connection to Bert and Colleen. I was a freshman in high school at that time and attending Wheaton was never on my mind. It wasn’t until I came to Wheaton and ran into Jerry Hawthorne—who invited me to Sunday dinner with his family—that I connected Bert and Jim Elliot, Betty Elliot, and even the LIFE magazine photographer named Cornell Capa.

It was also the first time I experienced the embrace of a Christian family and saw it up close.

Sunday dinner at the Hawthorne’s became a tradition; it was my home away from home, even though my parents then lived in Naperville, the next town over. I grew quite close to everyone, Steve, Lynn, Jimmy, and eventually Valerie. Grandma Elliot would come for extended visits from Portland. They were all subjects for my camera.

It was during this time that the idea of going to South America and volunteering my photographic services came to the table. Shortly afterward, a solid lead was made with Wycliffe Bible Translators. One thing lead to another, my friend Mike Friedline '75 started raising money, and before I knew it, I was flying down to Miami to catch a DC-3 owned by JAARS (Jungle Aviation Air and Radio Services)—an arm of Wycliffe—to Bogota, and then to Loma Linda, Colombia.

So, how'd you get that gig photographing the indigenous people of Colombia and Peru? 

I guess I got restless so I signed up to be a missionary (with a camera) with the Wycliffe Bible Translators during my sophomore year at Wheaton. It was a whirlwind. Missionaries needed funding, and in order to get support, they needed to tell their stories. So I made it easy to step in and help out. I’ve met some outstanding people there and as always, some not so outstanding. It seems one out of ten professed Christians always leaves a bad taste.

But at the time, I did not realize that Wycliffe was rather enlightened to the virtues of good photography. Cameron Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe, befriended a photographer by the name of Cornell Capa and spent the rest of his life trying the convert the brash Hungarian-Jew. Much of the strength of Wycliffe in those days was their visual sophistication, obviously influenced by Cornell. 

There will be a lot more mention of Cornell Capa, but Uncle Cam (Cameron Townsend) whom I got to know years later, was a legendary figure. Uncle Cam's love and gratitude for Cornell were deep, and I think it really gave Cornell a sense of belonging with that group. Cornell and I would visit Uncle Cam and Elaine often in Waxhaw, N.C. and they would come and visit NYC.

I'm fascinated by your photography work in South America among indigenous peoples and missionaries.

Here's one of the reasons I am interested: Dr. Kathryn Long, associate professor of history emeritus—who taught history at Wheaton for many years and who has a book on the Waorani and missions coming out in 2019—has revealed in her work the influence of photography upon American evangelical culture. Here's a quote about Cornell Capa from Kathryn Long's article titled "Cameras 'Never Lie'": 
"The twin emphases in Capa's photography—visual narrative and humanistic concern—enhanced the impact and even the myth surrounding the missionaries and the Waodani for North American evangelicals. The story that appeared in Life and in Through Gates of Splendor became an ongoing saga, an archetypal narrative of missionary sacrifice and heroism for evangelicals during the second half of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, however, when Elisabeth Elliot later employed the same visual approach to the Waodani themselves, the response among evangelical audiences was much less enthusiastic. Apparently, readers wanted to see missionaries portrayed in an empathetic light; they seemed less certain about an empathetic portrayal of non-Christian tribal people and their culture."

So, here's my question: How did people respond to your work?

The 70s were a simpler, more innocent time. Photography was still novel and fresh. Just seeing a picture in print was cause for pause and reflection. It was easy to capture attention. Especially with subjects such as proselytizing indigenous people or illuminating or creating empathy with photos—which really is about photojournalism—my thought is… “we see what we want to see.” We are all creatures with filters and intent. 

What is your most important tool as a photographer?

One would think it is the eyes. But I would resoundingly say it is faith. Blind Faith!

This issue of Wheaton explores themes of "passage." Can you tell me about a time in which you experienced a "passage"?

Between my sophomore and junior years, the summer before I went to South America with the Wycliffe Bible Translators, I was camped at the rim of the Grand Canyon. At that time in my life, I was a Bible-reading soldier on my way to spend a year as a missionary in South America, with what I would profess was a pretty comfortable relationship with God. 

Suddenly, and I can remember this so clearly, from the back of my mind the words came out. It was a deep voice, not something you hear but louder than anything I experienced. It just said, “I’ve been with you and I always will.” I felt as if the earth shook. That was it! It was an unusual few words to hear but nothing more. I looked around wondering, "What was that?" All I felt was empty silence.

Then I saw the beauty of the canyon rim under the stars, and I decided to go back to the camp to get my camera. I took a few pictures and went to bed. (I remember setting the camera on self-timer and took a picture of myself looking out on the rim where I heard the voice.)

I don’t know how or when it all became clear to me, I think there was an instant transformation but the effects did not reveal themselves for years. What was clear was a shift from self-loathing to self-love. With self-loathing, my Christian walk was striving to be someone else. More pious, more religious, to go to church, to memorize more Bible verses and to do greater good.

This fundamental shift affected everything around me.

How does your photography inspire "passage"?

Photography to me is NOT about taking a picture of something that I see. It’s about capturing something I didn’t see. For this reason, photography is like those words that I heard and my job is to keep challenging it.

I shoot mostly with intuition, not with my eyes. My eyes only recognize what I’ve seen before, and the temptation is to follow the familiar thereby making things predictable and boring. Instead, I sense the light and the subject are coming together for some interesting interaction, and so I start shooting. I’m almost shooting blindly purely by feeling. Trying to catch a moment beyond my understanding. The more complex the situation, i.e., the more elements there are, the more curious and optimistic I become. Afterward, I look at the results and look for something that is fresh and dynamic. In other words, I look for something I haven’t seen.

Having said that, I’ve moved away from that kind of photography. Photography, like faith or even miracles, gets harder and harder to attain, it gets harder because the more you see, the harder it is to see it fresh.  You get formulated, you know where and how to achieve a higher probability of success. This is when people get stuck. Success is the main culprit. I like to think that I reinvent myself every so many years to break the methodology and my expectation. 

If I can simply forget my expectation, usually I am rewarded with something completely unexpected. 

This notion of capturing the unseen is an escalating challenge to me. That is why I’ve stuck to photography all my life. Not because it is easy. Because it’s been a journey of discovery. What we don’t realize is this… What is elusive is, in reality, everywhere. There are infinite possibilities attainable and the main firewall is our own lack of faith.

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