— At the age of four, in 1986, Pao Houa Her sought refuge from Laos with her family in the US.
By 2011, she became the first Hmong woman to graduate from Yale’s MFA program, focusing her photography on Hmong refugee populations in the US.
You’re this reimagined person, and I want to say, for a lot of us, that’s the allure of studio portraits.: They were these painted backdrops, sometimes of mountainscapes or of Hmong villages, and always prop plants at the sides.
I think a lot of Hmong folks from my parents’ era and my own era who were born or spent time in Laos have these pictures.
According to Her, though such social networks publicly market themselves for dating, these women, living in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, in fact seek Hmong-American suitors to send money to their families and deliver them to the US., a series of stories and portraits of Chinese-American immigrants, adoptees, and his fellow American-born Chinese — sometimes referred to as ABC’s.
Together Her’s and Wing’s projects capture a working image of the Asian-American experience.
These are pictures that we carry, that I still have of my parents, of us.
Two of the three types of pictures in this exhibition are either found studio portraits of Hmong women posing for online dating sites, or studio shoots that you’ve personally produced.
So what if I owned a restaurant like my dad, or became an engineer like my brother, or, if I turned like my mom really wanted, which was to marry a nice Chinese woman and have nice Chinese kids — that didn’t happen.Once you’re in front of this backdrop that’s usually very floral, or usually an iconic image, and you put on clothes that you don’t wear every day, shiny clothes, maybe things you wear once a year, maybe for the Hmong New Year, or even clothes that you don’t actually have yourself — like at Xiong Portraits they have clothes from all over the world, Chinese outfits, Vietnamese outfits, wedding gowns.I think what it does is transport you out of your own reality.They’re idealized versions, so you look at the photo, you show it, you keep it for generations and everyone remembers your life through that idealized, glamorized memory.: You know, I don’t think of photography as just memory. The photograph in front of us is like the selected memory in our minds.
So maybe it’s not that photography is fiction, but photography is selected memory. You know, Pao, in a sense, what you’re doing now has taken me 30 years to figure out.
We sat down again a few weeks later and discussed the cultural gulf between first and second generation immigrant and refugee families, the ways photographs represent our selective memories, and Her’s own significance as a distinguished female voice in the Hmong-American community.