Jason Florio

The Long Fight for Kawtoolie

Sixty two years ago in Karen State, Burma, the Karen people were forced into a David and Goliath conflict against the powerful authoritarian Burmese military regime who have tried to push the Karen people off the map through a brutal and systematic policy of murder, rape, forced labor and the complete destruction of their villages. Six decades on, and now considered the world’s longest current running conflict, the Karen people continue to be brutalized in an ongoing pursuit to cleanse them from their homeland they call Kawtoolie.

Working on assignment in Karen State in 2010 I was enamored by the calm resilience of the Karen people, both volunteer soldiers and civilians who all seem to possess a quiet determination backed up by their motto ‘never surrender’. Moved by the stoic and yet serene nature of Karen and horrified with their stories of the human rights violations against them, I decided to return in February 2011, self-funded, to bring the face of the Karen people, and their highly under-reported struggle to survive against the brutal Burmese junta to a greater audience in the hope of affecting some positive change.




Jason Florio is a NYC based photographer who seeks to create a conduit between cultures and societies by stripping down the seeming boundaries of language, religion and ideologies and to help show the commonalities that we share.


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Jason Florio

32 thoughts on “Jason Florio – The Long Fight for Kawtoolie”

  1. Interesting portraits. I like the background screening, just transparent enough to see what’s behind them, without the distraction. Is that an original approach? I haven’t seen it used before.

  2. The “Karen” are the long neck people also no? or is that the wrong karen?
    I mean the women are the ones who elongate their necks.

    Nice portraits Jason.
    But I do have a problem where I sometimes see these portraits….or better…portraits such as these trying to glorify war.
    Nothing to do with your skills as a photographer…only the subject matter.

    I ask myself if these pictures will loose their impact if these men were not armed?

    did a quick look again and #13 and #14 are men unarmed….well the retired soldier has some kind of weapon.

    They totally stand on their own without all the weaponry.

  3. The first portrait just stopped me in my tracks. What a beautiful series.

    This man, and all the rest, just present themselves to the camera in an un-affected way. The “calm resiliance” “never surrender” is written all over them.
    The lighting is superb, and your use of the transparent fabric background is brilliant. This is a seldom used technique and I’ve never seen it used to better effect.

    Congratulations and good luck getting this story and your work out there.

  4. I am not mad on these, or this style of portaiture in general, however I have just spent a wonderful hour or so trawling through your website. Very good work indeed, a pleasure to browse through.

  5. Jason Florio – as a photographer I am humbled by your work. Magnificent! Like John Gladdy, I refer to the large display of beautiful and poignant work on your website. I also find this series to be excellent and thought provoking. It would diminish it to remove the weapons, because that’s who they are. I would have liked to have seen a few women included here – as you have done on your website.

    As to the backdrop, my feelings are mixed. I do like it and am very impressed that you thought of such a thing, yet I find my eyes wandering around on the backdrop and away from the subject much more than I do with the superbly composed environmental portraits to be found on your website. The texture of the cloth is a magnet to my eye, as are the shapes behind it.

  6. Frostfrog

    The backdrop, and it’s hint of what’s behind is one of the things that make these portraits so engaging. The hint of what’s behind, the out of focus background, is further screened from us by the fabric. I love the texture. It is a distraction, but a wonderful one, mysterious, secret almost. Visualize these portraits with a plain background, or an “environmental” background, they would still be good, but without the extra kick.

    John G I adore this style of portraiture. Straighforward and un-affected.

  7. It is indeed probably the most unreported war in the age of information, period, many people have a slight idea of other conflicts, but usually, if not having some interest in the region, people have no idea.

    The Karen are many tribes, the long neck women (Kayan, or padaung tribe) are only one of them, and even of the red Karen sub-group at that.

    Your essay is just an introduction to the fighting arm of the embattled ethnie, and anyone who wishes to get more information can read Phil Thornton’ RESTLESS SOULS, and also google KAREN, of course, with any assorted word like army, website or liberation.

    The fact that they all, men, wear weapons is indeed problematic with me, but it tells of a real conundrum one may have about seeing people waging war, not always of the defensive type, for so long. One can ask oneself if men, fathers, sons, grandsons, who have been fighting for 60 years will be ready for times of peace, when weapons must be laid down.

    I have tried, read many books, but the plot of the Karen liberation is one of an alphabet soup of different armies, leaders, political representations, some fighting along, some at odds with each other, some “traitors”, “dealing with the enemy”, etc…. And you can surely get lost in the thick plot that had lasted 60 some years, and going. This too does not help to put that kind of “freedom fighting” on the map.

    Some aid and diplomacy is witheld too, or complicated, wavery, because since mostly represented by their armies, it adds complexities to the issues (basically with the stringent definitions of what constitutes terrorism, non-violence is is an easier way to get attention and advocacy, the risk being there is no one left while help is on the way), even though fleeing families in thailand do have a few places where dedicated NGOs have been doing some of the most unsung work to help the destitutes, especially compared to Cambodia where hardly a gun is heard these days, but where NGOs have been very good at self-promotion and tear-jerking donors.

    60 years at war, there is no track record of what a etnic Karen civil society could be, if returning to their land. that’s why the guns in every picture provide an apt statement of what they strictly are, for the moment. Most likely, without having to be drawn into armed conflict, even if Burma was to elect Aung Saan Suu Kyi (long stretch, but who knows, Burma has seen more hopeful changes in one year than the last 50 years) , there would still be contentious issues unresolved and IMO, still a lot of mistrust towards the central government, and its ethnic majority, the burmese.

  8. You are right of course, Gordon. When I first look at the picture, my eye goes strait to the subject, but then quickly breaks away from the subject to delve into the background. I have to force myself to break away from the background and study the subject. Perhaps this is what the photographer wants. Perhaps there are positives and negatives to this.

  9. Yet, the bottom line is that Jason Florio is a fine photographer. Given the breadth and depth of his work, I hardly feel qualified to criticize him at all.

  10. Wonderful work with an original touch in the screen. It reminds me of old portraits of Native American Indians. I was bothered by the ones who appear to have struck a pose, and preferred the most unaffected ones, but the reality is that war and violence bring out different sides of people at different times. Well done, inspiring portraits.

  11. BTW, I wonder why do I like these “idealized” portraits of freedom fighters and not idealized portraits of children? Because here it’s ironic, a built in tension that increases the more you look.

  12. again there seems to be a dearth of comments for an outstanding body of work. Why does this trend continue? What are we waiting for?? These are beautiful images of a scene rarely seen…

  13. Andy
    I would not call these portraits “idealized”, rather, they are formal portraits (with a twist), of un-familiar and un-likely subjects.
    I find these portraits very moving. They likely tell me much more about these people than any documentry style photograph could. We can look into these faces and relate.

    The concept of “idealized” portraits, of children or otherwise is a whole other topic. Is an idealized formal portrait any less or more valid, or any closer to the truth than a candid documentary style photograph?

  14. I love this essay.
    beautiful pictures (textures, colors, lights, shadows …)
    the second subject of the half hidden background, like a movie
    the third subject of them showing up their guns and tatoos

    i feel like the most important aspect that made these pictures successfull isn’t the good technique, but maybe the way the photographer communicated with the subjects, because they seem all to be mirroring the photographer in the same way, calm (peaceful?) but stressed, determinated… You feel the tension as they look straight,
    but at the same time each of them feels being unique character, to whom you can relate, not like stereotypes of gangsters, which might have been easy to feel with all this weaponery

    very remarkable! showing almost nothing, but still evoking the whole conflict behind.

  15. zbd22222…

    “These are beautiful images of a scene rarely seen…”

    You’ve hit it. Very rarely seen. And never like this. What an accomplishment!

  16. Jason,

    I Love this work very much.
    I feel some kind of nostalgia of jungle from the backgroud screen.
    Very Nice match between the reality(potrait)and fantasy(background).

    Thank you for nice work. :))
    Kyunghee Lee

  17. Jason: it looks peacefull.

    Indeed Hervé: to me it is the scars, more than the weapons, which tell me who they are… How many more of those were inflicted since the last time I went there 20 years ago?

    You might be interested in this from Nic Dunlop: http://www.burmasoldier.com/

    Fyi: the man in picture 14 is not carrying a weapon but a tool used for threshing rice.

  18. Well done Jason. The project comes off strong. For me it was especially nice to see the portraits of these soldiers as I know most of them.
    It is very hard to find a venue for these under reported stories. When someone, like yourself, successfully brings attention to these issues in the mainstream, “making those unseen be seen”, the effort must be applauded.
    You also have some great photos of Karen civilians on your website!

  19. John Vink
    Jason: it looks peaceful….

    Matt Blauer also did a docu which deserves to be seen, very humane, if gripping and haunting in the end. I think some of that peacefulness John talks about can be hinted upon looking at it. It’s 28 minutes, definitely putting a face on these forlorn people, a few tears on mine (too late to change now!) and the HD quality is superb, which is still uncommon on Ytube for docus:

  20. Hi Jason, thanks for sharing these.

    Another interesting set of images on Burn.

    I would agree that for me at least part of what sets these apart from other sets of portraits `in this style` is the semi-opaque background you used.
    It drew me in. I felt it acknowledged, and alluded to, the preparation for the shots, in stark contrast with the apparent rawness of the people + location involved. Nice one.

    Having said that, I did feel a bit sad when the series ended. I wanted to see more… perhaps shots of the people on the periphery of this situation, or even soldiers fighting on the other side if that`s remotely possible. Or maybe an even wider shot of what your ad-hoc studio looks like, as a closing image?

    Either way, keep it up mate. Engaging stuff, and a worthwhile subject.

  21. Wow – these are incredible…
    I’m going to Burma next February and have just been reading up about the northern parts. Was it easy to move around up there and did anyone (police, etc) mind you photographing when further south? I’m hoping to use a field camera and tripod…
    Also, my girlfriend was briefly taught by this guy, originally Burmese, whose photos you might like:
    Best wishes,

  22. Hey Will, Burma is very simple for travellers. Either a place is forbidden and you will not be able to get there, let alone set up your equipment, or it’s open to tourists and you can shoot all your hearts’ content (with the exception of military and govnmt installations/offices).

    The other alternative, most likley not yours, is to do like Jason and quite a few other PJs or foreign supporters do, which is to find your very own alternative but illegal ways to enter regions where you are not suppposed to be, usually crossing the border thru jungle/mountains. Illegally again.

    The Mae Sot chekc point between Thailand and Burma just re-opened. It may be only open for thais and burmese, not others tough, but that’s one way, with Mae sai to legally be in regions where ethnic hilltribes live.

  23. nice to see Jason’s work at BURN…and (you can see i’ve been 2 1/2 months behind) so happy that both Herve and John have filled the details out…though too about the documentary that John has linked to..

    anywway, happy that the story is being seen…and like all history all travail, all fights for home, whatever that is, is much more complex and slippery and elongated that we can begin…that even photogrpahy can begin to tell…

    i too like the use of the obfuscated background…which links the work to pre-Renaissance painting techniques, but also serves to display the soldiers from their surrounding, a metaphor for both the focus of their bodies/limbs/faces, but also for the derangement of history’s tributaries…

    thanks for burn for showing…

    keep up the story Jason


  24. I just want to thank David and the Burn team for giving me the opportunity to show these images… and to thank everyone that has taken the time to make such thoughtful comments, as well as share links to other photographers who have also worked on this story.If anyone has any questions please drop me a line at : florio@floriophoto.com or to see more images from this project : http://www.floriophoto.com/#/new%20work/62%20years%20in%20the%20jungle%20/1

    Happy New Year !

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