As a teenager, Pao Houa Her skipped lunch to develop photos in her school’s darkroom.
“I was a horrible student and it was probably the only thing that kept me in school,” Her said, adding that dyslexia was one hindrance, among others.
But she stuck with photography, and after studying the craft at Inver Grove Hills Community College and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she became the first Hmong person to earn an MFA from Yale University School of Art. That was in 2012.
Her returned to Minnesota because she’s interested in “what it means to be Hmong American,” she said. Given that the Twin Cities has such a sizable Hmong population, “my work is here,” not in New York City or Los Angeles, she said.
Today, Her operates a studio in Lino Lakes. She is aware of only a handful of Hmong photographers around the country. Contemporary fine art, including photography, hasn’t taken hold in the Hmong community, as “most Hmong families see the arts as not being practical,” she said. The community is still in survival mode, she added.
When she was growing up, Her, whose Laotian parents never learned English, felt torn between two cultures, as if she was supposed to be both as Hmong as possible and as American as possible. She started taking photos that spoke to that “duality, the clash between Hmong and American cultures.” That theme continues to drive her work.
Her once aspired to be a writer and was drawn to the storytelling aspect of photography. It came naturally to her, and she likes that photos are universal in a way. “People of all backgrounds are able to ‘read’ pictures,” she said.
However, it’s hard to be a part of such a small group of artists that has shown little growth in recent years. “I’m always asking myself, ‘who are my images for? White Americans? Hmong people?’ ” Within her own community, “There’s a stigma,” she said, adding, “I’m often told my work is ‘too white.’ ”
Her’s repertoire includes a wide range of color and black-and-white portraits, landscapes and interiors. Some images tell about aspects of everyday life, particularly in her community, and for Hmong people overseas.
For example, Her’s subjects include her nephew sunbathing in the yard, bowls of rice with water and peppers with salt, a barbecue, and young women wearing traditional garb both in Minnesota and in Laos. Certain shots are also revealing when it comes to various cultural norms, like the idea that young women are brought up to be married off, she said.
In 2013 and 2014, she received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and a Jerome fellowship. It enabled her to create and distribute 2,000 newsprint booklets featuring a selection of her photos. The booklet includes colorful photos of fruit and artificial flower arrangements, and portraits of young Hmong women.
Finding inspiration in Laos
The grant money also helped Her fund several work trips to Laos, and she’ll exhibit some of her resulting photos at MCAD in September. During the trips, she shot everything from a woman peddling her wares at an open-air market to a monk using the Internet. On a personal level, her photos contemplate “what it means to be of that place and not have ties to that place,” she said.
Besides experiencing culture shock, having romanticized the country in her head, Her observed that Laotians’ idea of beauty “is so westernized.” She was surprised to see how women lighten their complexions; try to be skinny, and even alter their photos, giving themselves noses with a prominent bridge-like shape. Likewise, the attitudes about success seem imported, having to do with material wealth, Her said.
It wasn’t easy traveling solo as a Hmong woman, either. “People asked, ‘what was my business in Laos,’ ” suspecting that she was trying to find a husband. Her’s photography work didn’t translate for them. “They don’t have too many people trying to get their image,” she said. She also ran into “deep misconceptions about America.” Still, Her has a passion for the people and the land, and she grew a lot artistically when she was overseas, she added.
A couple of years ago, Her began a project centering on Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War. During the war, thousands of Hmong men, CIA recruits, died fighting alongside American troops. Many of those who survived, some of whom she’s found through local Hmong veterans organizations, are “really proud of the fact that they’re Hmong vets.” She recently learned that her father “fought in the war but not officially. He did not have ranks among the U.S. Army,” she said.
The men who were part of the U.S. Secret Army aren’t recognized as American vets, but they’re considered to be allies, she said. Many of the veterans will buy their own American uniforms, usually online, along with special ribbons that are ceremoniously pinned to their outfits. “I’m interested in the uniform. It becomes the power,” she said. Their uniforms have a costume feel, and in some ways, the men are akin to re-enactors, though their goal is very real: “to be recognized by the government that displaced them,” Her said.
She portrays the men in the style of pictures hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. “There’s a formal aspect to them and a painterly quality to the images,” she said. Plus, the resulting 42-inch-by-60-inch prints make a big visual statement, she added.
Photos that raise questions
Photographer Paul Shambroom, who had Her as a student at MCAD, said of her photos, “There’s a lot of complexity in her work.”
Her’s images are beautifully photographed and yet, “There’s just a sense in her pictures that you have to keep looking at them. They don’t so much answer questions as raise more questions,” Shambroom said. Her photos have a narrative quality to them. It’s intensely personal and yet it’s “not just about her.” She’s more of a conduit, he said.
Shambroom is especially drawn to some of her images of Hmong generals. “They have a lot of tension in them. These men are also caught in a place where their uniforms aren’t really theirs. They’re military heroes but they’re not recognized in the U.S.,” he said.
Sieng Lee, a Hmong graphic designer who recently graduated from MCAD, said Her’s work is often misunderstood in the community due to the “plethora of fashion and trend-based photography” that dominates the media.
It also doesn’t fit in with the cliché craft, like the embroidered fabric panels known as story cloth, which is seen as typical Hmong art. “Her’s work is important because it simply asks, ‘What is art?’ ” he said. Her goes deep, bringing up “ideas of subject, place and time.” That’s something that extends beyond her community. “Her subject is Hmong, but her concept seeks universality,” he said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.