Pao Houa Her was born somewhere in the northern jungles of Laos. She fled Laos with her family when she was a baby, crossed the Mekong on her mother’s back, was fed opium to keep from crying, lived in the refugee camps in Thailand and landed in America on a silver metal bird in the mid 1980s. She is a visual artist in Minnesota who works within multiple genres of photography. Her received her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and her MFA from Yale University
My Grandfather turned into a Tiger
My Grandfather turned into a Tiger started out as a literal photographic translation of a family lore that was told to me about my grandfather but a great-aunt. I’ve been really interested in this family lore because realistically I know that one can not turn into a tiger but I also acknowledge that the death of a love one changes and can sometime alters one’s state of mind. Because of this, the images I made in Laos and here in MN are about magic, love, illusion, delusion, and most importantly construction with regards to the constructed narrative and the constructed images. While the idea for the images came from this family lore, ultimately I believe these images are about magic, love, illusion, delusion, and most importantly ideas of construction.
After going through your project, My Grandfather Turned into a Tiger, you seem to be negotiating with the implications of being a part of a community that your not necessarily (geographically speaking) connected to, and the familial relationships you hold in the United States. Can you talk about your relationship to Laos and coming to the United States?
I was born in Laos in the early 80s, and my family left about a year and a half after I was born to seek refuge in Thailand before coming to Minnesota. I don’t have any memories of Laos, and it actually wasn’t until graduate school that I decided that I was going to go back. I try to go back every year, or at least every other year, so I’ve been back four or five times…sometimes by myself, with family, or friends. This body of work, My Grandfather Turned into a Tiger, really came out of this story that was told to me by a great aunt that was dying of cancer. She told me this story about how my grandfather was asked to go fight in the Vietnam War in the early 60s, and not long after he went, he died. We’re not sure how he died, but shortly after, a tiger showed up at my grandmothers home, and stayed with my grandmother until she asked it to leave. People in the village believed the tiger was my grandfather, and my grandmother believed the tiger was my grandfather. This tiger stayed with her and essentially isolated her from the villagers and her suitors, so one day she asked the tiger to leave, and the tiger left to no return. The idea of shape shifting after death was always fascinating to me.
I wanted to go to Laos and make these literal photographic translations of the story. I was looking for a tiger, small villages, an old man…it became very boring for me. I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer, so I began breaking down what I found interesting about the story. For me, I was really interested in the mythology of the tiger, my grandfather, lust, love, illusion, disillusion, shapeshifting, trickery…I made about half of the project in Laos, and after going through them, I started thinking about work that I could make here in the United States.
Some of the work is digitally composted, physically constructed a scene for a photograph, and I ended up having some of the images be lenticular images. For example, the image of the tiger is a physical construction. I created this scene, then made it a lenticular image, which gives the illusion of the tiger following you around the exhibit. The photograph of the jungle fire, the leaves, and the Flower Penis, the two plain jar images, are also a lenticular images.
All of your images were wheat pasted on the wall, correct?
Yes! I feel like there’s something magical that happens when you put an image directly on the wall. All of the imperfections, the texture, that was on the wall, was transferred over to the image. So when one looks at the image, they see the imperfections of the wall itself. I’m constantly reexamining the possibilities of how to look at photographs and photography itself. I actually considered the walls of the exhibit to be like pages in a book.
Based on the installation shots and the state of the photographs your showing us, it’s clear you wanted to convey a scattered…disjointed memory that was patched together with a variety of perspectives. It seems like every image, in one way or another, your trying to trying to bring your own “self” into Laos, and Laos into the United States. When you go to Laos, do you still have family that you connect with? Or do you chose to be alone when you can?
I do have family in Laos, and when I go back, I make it a point to visit them. Sometimes I’ll go and visit my aunt who lives three hours or so outside the capital and stay with her. I’m finding the longer I stay, I tend to make better images so if I go out to make a portrait, I like to stay longer in the village to foster the relationship with other people.
Is there any kind of nostalgia when you go back to Laos or rather, do you feel it’s your duty to photograph the stories passed down from past generations? In other words, would you stay longer if you could or is it a means to an end.
I dont have any attachment to Laos. The only thing that bounds me to Laos is my birth. I was born in Laos… my placenta is buried in Laos. In my culture, when you die, your supposed to make your way back to where your placenta was buried. I only way I knew about Laos before I went is the way my Father and Mother talked about it. When I went to Laos for the first time in graduate school, I was really shocked by how romanticized Laos is, especially in the way my parents and grandparents talked about it. I had this fantasy that I would go to Laos, step onto the land, become one with Laos, have a wonderful time, make amazing pictures…. my life would change. This wasn’t the case at all. As much as I’ve been back, I’m still trying to find my place. It’s a space I don’t know, and the way I envisioned it is incredibly different from the reality of Laos. My place is in America because I was raised here…which is also really strange. In my community (Hmong), some have a real need and longing for Laos. It’s a longing I think my generation doesn’t have because we weren’t born there or raised there.
I can imagine you’d tell friends and family in your community ‘Oh I’m going to Laos to take photographs’, and they become incredibly excited and start saying where you should photograph…giving you ideas of what to photograph and places that they hold deep personal connections to. Of course, when we look at the project, there’s no edenic Laos (at least in your photographs) so I can imagine some people were disappointed in how you saw Laos.
Absolutely. There’s no romanticizing of the region. I’m aware in the way Laos has been photographed (National Geographic, etc.) so for me, the challenge is how do I make these images that aren’t necessarily iconic, but if you were from that region, you would know where it was made. Essentially, the information embedded in the photograph is only privy to those from Laos. The idea of who gets the information, and who doesn’t is really fascinating to me.
How did your family come to Minnesota? When I consider the history of Immigration in this country, it’s (usually) East Coast / West Coast.
So in the mid-seventies, ones of the ways you could come to the United States was to get sponsorship. A church in Minnesota sponsored my uncle and his family, and then a couple of years later, my uncles and his family sponsored our family. The social services in Minnesota we’re really supportive too and a big reason why there’s such a huge Hmong population here.
Do you consider your family work inexhaustible or are you slowly turning to other subject matter and interests?
I believe the work focuses more on the Hmong community, rather than my family. Regardless, I’ll always photograph my family, as well as the changes and history of the Hmong community here. Photography helps me unpack the community’s nuances and my own space, as well as examine and critique the community.
To view more of Pao Houa Her’s work please visit her website.