Joel Pickford‘s titular journey took him through an 8,000-mile trek to some of the most remote villages in Laos, five years of interviewing Hmong refugees, and five years of reading Hmong history and ethnography. The result is a gorgeous, startling, intimate portrait of an ethnic community on opposite sides of the world, connected by centuries of culture and history, scattered by decades of conflict and war.
“The story Joel Pickford tells,” notes Hmong American author Kao Kalia Yang (The Latecomers: A Hmong Family Memoir) in her foreword, ” … is a story of how a people starved by war search for food in a nation whose history has never included them.” That ‘nation’ is multiple nations: centuries ago, China pushed out the Hmong south to Laos; during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military recruited and trained Hmong in Laos to fight the North Vietnamese Army, then virtually erased them as part of a so-called “Secret War” which the U.S. government denied for decades; post-war communist Laos persecuted and further displaced the Hmong; Thailand mistreated then expelled Hmong refugees. Today, the U.S. is home to the largest diasporic Hmong population in the West, yet their migration here has been challenging at best, sometimes tragic at worst.
“This is a document of human experience across blue oceans and the expanse of generations,” Yang continues. “The time for neglect and forgetting is through; may the Hmong spirit find its way on the long journey home to the places where our bodies are seen and our souls’ cries are heard.”
Pickford’s camera sees with acuity, records with empathy. His testimony begins with “The New Arrivals, 2004-2006” in Fresno, California, which already has an established Hmong American community that began with the first refugee influx in the mid-1970s following the 1975 Communist takeover of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Pickford captures their uncertainty and their hope, their survivor scars and their future dreams, their traditional ceremonies and adaptive improvisations. Ironically, tragically, as his photographic journey moves from recent refugees to established Hmong Americans, Pickford comes to realize that the Hmong who have been in the U.S. longer actually “practice a purer form of Hmong culture” because the majority of the newer arrivals have survived the last two decades trapped in Thai camps, denied access to what was once their familiar, familial village lives.
From Hmong America, Pickford travels to Laos, visiting various mountain villages, often accessible only on foot. At 6’4″ and carrying some 45 pounds of photographic equipment, Pickford certainly stands out. In one especially remote area, he is the first falang (foreigner) whom the villagers have ever seen. Time seems to have stopped in many of these rural destinations, untouched by electricity, machinery, even roads. As he considers his Hmong American friends back in California, Pickford contemplates the vast differences between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ He “seriously consider[s] spending the next year of [his] life in [one] remote village,” in order to “really figure out what life in this village is all about.” No longer sure how much he “really understand[s],” he offers these complex, story-filled images as guides …
In addition to this magnificent book, Pickford’s photographs will be featured in a major exhibition: “Soul Calling” opens at the Fresno Art Museum this Friday, September 28, and runs through January 6, 2013. If you’re anywhere near, don’t miss it. “I have a vision of photography as an imperfect two-way mirror, through which people from different cultures attempt to look at one another but, to a large extent, see only themselves,” Pickford writes. Indeed, this is not someone else’s story, this is all our stories.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult