Forced Rebellion

4642590394_3ce12defcc_oIn the early 1960’s, special operatives from the CIA secretly recruited and trained over a quarter of the Hmong people—a minority ethnic group who lived in the mountains of Laos and were known for their combat skills—to fight against the north Vietnamese Communists. They were dubbed the “Special Guerrilla Unit,” and by the time of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, over 12,000 of them had died fighting in battle, many more injured. The remaining survivors were left to fend for themselves in Communist territory, and under constant threat of governmental persecution. Many were forced to flee to Thailand, and in the 1990’s-early 2000’s, were again forced to return to Laos. Fearing sustained persecution, thousands of Hmong  fled to the jungles to live a nomadic lifestyle, where they remain targets of attack.

For three weeks in early 2010, artist/photojournalist KC Ortiz willingly joined and lived with the last surviving members of the Hmong people in the jungles of Laos. The process of gaining access to this seclusive, nomadic, and persecuted group took Ortiz two years.

Ortiz’s images—all in black-and-white—which hang in the back room of the newly established Known Gallery on Fairfax under the title “Forced Rebellion,” reveal a stark, multi-generational, Flying Dutchman society. Constantly on the move, the Hmong cannot afford to plant crops, or build permanent shelters; the jungle, their only real home, serves as the background for almost every photograph. Most of the subjects hold AK-47’s in their arms, sometimes alongside a newborn baby. Their entire demeanor is one of defense. They stare into the lens of the camera solemnly, almost judging it—and by extension, the viewer.

Ortiz got his start documenting graffiti artists in the Chicago area (the work of his former subject, Pose, a major name in the street-art movement, is on view in the front room of Known Gallery), and his journey toward covering more remote, often subjugated cultures in the world is one of extreme courage. He has shot photographs of Vietnamese cancer patients, Burmese migrant workers, the Hong Kong lower class, and Delhi Tuberculosis victims. Word has it that his next mission is the Colombian drug trade.

Here in LA, it’s often too easy to dismiss socially conscious photojournalism, as if it were simply some type of clever “hook.” But seeing Ortiz’s work, and reading about what went into it, one can see it is just as personal as any other form of photography—or artwork, for that matter. He, much like the Hmong soldier posing center-frame with his rifle, stands for rebellion: a conscious, slow, determined, little-seen, and worthwhile rebellion.

Known Gallery is located at 441 North Fairfax Avenue. KC  Ortiz’s “Forced Rebellion” is on view until June 12th. For more information, please call (310) 860-6263, or visit www.knowngallery.com.

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