The Karen people of Myanmar have been embattled in a civil war with the country’s central government since 1949. It is considered the world’s longest ongoing war.
In late 2010, photographer Jason Florio was on assignment in Myanmar when he became inspired to undertake a larger project on the freedom fighters and civilians in the Karen state.
“I was immediately enamored by the gentleness of the Karen people and their serene composure despite being embroiled in one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts,” Florio said. “I was hooked.”
He returned two months later and spent five weeks trekking through the remote jungles, visiting villages and photographing the people he met.
Florio said he wanted to “bring viewers face to face with the Karen people,” members of an ethnic minority that make up about 7 percent of the population.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has historically blamed the ethnic rebels for waging attacks to destabilize the government.
Although the democratization of the country under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi has made steps toward ending the civil war, Florio said the Karen people and other ethnic groups in Myanmar are still being oppressed.
He worked in extremely treacherous conditions, traveling in the cover of darkness and always under threat of detection by the Burmese army.
“For one set of portraits we trekked by foot for three days over mountains covering about 80 miles to remote Karen jungle villages,” Florio said.
He also visited Karen National Liberation Army bases on the front lines and was smuggled down the Salween River, hiding under black tarps.
His technique of isolating the subjects he photographed on a backdrop while still letting some of the environment show is one he calls a “happy accident,” discovered during a previous shoot.
“The first time I hung the sheet in the glare of a West African afternoon I noticed that the environment subtly appeared behind the subject, so from then on I tried to incorporate the ‘happy accident’ into the portraits,” Florio said.
The piece of cloth itself holds special significance to the photographer. Given to him by his grandmother, it’s nearly 70 years old.
It was the curtain she used to black out her windows when London was blitzed by Germany during World War II.
Since 1997, he has been using it as a backdrop for a series of portraits of people living in conflict areas and on the edges of the developing world.
“For me photography is a conduit, a way to hopefully bring awareness, demystify and educate,” Florio said. “The Karen are often shy people and are not attention seekers, but once I showed them other work I had done, they understood my intentions and were happy to be photographed.”