The biography on photographer Pao Houa Her’s website couldn’t be more simple:
Pao Houa Her is a visual artist based in Minnesota. [She] studied at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and at Yale University School of Art.
What it doesn’t say is that Pao is the first Hmong artist ever to receive an MFA from the prestigious Yale photography program. And it fails to mention that her work has been called everything from “remarkable” to “pioneering.”
This Hmong American may be one of the most humble photographers around. And she’s also one of the most versatile. Her images range from black-and-white landscapes to portraits of Hmong veterans who fought for the CIA but have never been officially recognized by the United States.
Pao’s current work is on display at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis. Director Tim Peterson worked with Pao to select which of her many images to include in the untitled exhibit.
“It’s the world through her eye and her lens,” says Tim. “The more you get to know her work, the more you’re impressed by the breadth and depth of her commitment.”
As a photographer, Pao can jump from documentary-style images of her family (like this picture of her mother and baby brother) to self-portraits. For the last few years, she’s has been using her camera to delve into the world of Hmong mail-order brides. Some of that work is showcased in this exhibit as well.
“I came across this website where Hmong American men connect with Hmong Laotian women,” says Pao. “It’s mainly just people’s photos. What’s amazing is how Westernized their ideas of beauty are since a lot of them live up in the hills without much of a connection to the world outside. The pictures are heavily Photoshopped. The European nose is a must, not a flat Hmong nose. To have a bridge, it’s very desirable. So they’re Photoshopped to look like that.”
Pao began collecting images from these dating sites. And she just returned from a trip to Laos, where she photographed Hmong girls and used the same techniques employed in the Internet pictures.
The more popular images on the Internet show women in traditional Hmong outfits in a wheat field or surrounded by rice paddies. Middle-aged Hmong American men, says Pao, often feel like they’ve lost their connection to Laos. For many of them, these girls represent the Hmong ideal, a link back to a land or a life they lost.
“It’s easy to say the men are taking advantage of these women or that the women are using these men for money. Actually, I’m not all that interested in either of those stories,” explains Pao (who is portrayed in the image above in a traditional Hmong woman pose). “But I’m very interested in the human psychology behind it all. I think many of my images touch on the idea of desire. Not just desire from a personal perspective, but from a cultural perspective. The desire to belong, the desire to be recognized, the desire to be desired.”
Pao Houa Her’s images will be on display at Franklin Art Works through May 4, 2013.
If you’d like to hear Pao talk about life as a Hmong American photographer, check this out.
(All photos courtesy of Pao Houa Her)