Author Q&A: Soul Calling by Joel Pickford

The result of five years of courageous and heartfelt commitment, Soul Calling: A Photographic Journey through the Hmong Diaspora opens our eyes to the beauty, resilience and daily lives of the Hmong people, so recently displaced from their traditional homeland by the traumas of the Vietnam War.
Joel Pickford

From remote Hmong villages in the mountains of Laos to the shamanic ceremonies of Hmong Americans living in Fresno, writer and photographer Joel Pickford leads us into a world of deep-rooted custom and the harsh realities of cultural adaptation. Summer 2012 intern and Stanford University senior Sandy Chang interviews him.

Where did your interest in the Hmong culture originate?

I was recruited to do a project focusing on housing and new arrivals, but I had previously thought about doing a project on my own many years before.  Once I started the project, I was hooked.  I then developed a vision for expanding the project to include the people who had been in America for up to 30 years, as well as looking at village life in the homeland.

The majority of your projects are usually in black and white. Why did you decide to use color for the Hmong project and how do you think the photographs benefitted from color?

Color seemed a no brainer for a culture that uses vibrant color in so many ways.  I never even considered black and white for Soul Calling. As an artist, I am always looking for ways to challenge myself and go somewhere I haven’t been before.

Did you have any original goals in making this photodocumentary? A large portion of the book discusses the housing conditions of new Hmong arrivals. How and why did these goals change?

The housing advocacy goals were mainly those of the first sponsoring organization, FIRM.  But I immediately envisioned a larger project that would be more ethnographic in nature.  The Hmong are a people shrouded in mystery.  Their ancient origin is both mysterious and controversial.  Their true motives during the First and Second Indochina Wars also remain somewhat mysterious.  Even their way of life in America is mysterious in certain ways.  I was driven by a desire to probe that mystery, not to solve it because mysteries are never truly solved, but to understand the depth and breadth of that mystery better most people have been able to.

Do you identify more as a photographer or as a writer? While making Soul Calling did you experience any problems trying to combine photography with text?

I started the project wearing my photographer’s hat.  I had no plans for a book.  The initial goals were an exhibition and, in the second year, an online digital archive containing thousands of photographs, narratives, and other material that would be accessible 24/7 for scholars and for the future descendants of the people in the photographs.  This latter dream is as yet unfulfilled.  I am looking for the right library with whom to partner for the project.

I cannot recall how or when the idea for the book came about.  I just remember that at some point I started to write, then I started to edit photos, and then I started to put book proposals in to binders and mail them off to agents and publishers.  Once I started writing in earnest, which I did for several hours every morning, I became very absorbed in the process and very excited about the creative potential of writing.  I love the unconstrained budget of the written word as compared with filmmaking and photography.  Anything is possible for the writer—period settings, expensive battle scenes, moving across time and space, or between the inner and outer worlds.  I leaned heavily on the photographs while writing and developed a kind of cinema-verite´  approach to telling the story, using pure descriptive passages with minimal reflection, almost like a movie camera rolling without cuts or splices.

You dedicated the book to your three favorite children, Fentha, Bobby, and Sandy. Can you tell us more about them and why the book is dedicated to them?

They are my adopted Lao children who live in Vientiane, Laos.  I see them every year and miss them every day when I am in California.  I call them every week. The book was a labor of love, so who better to dedicate it to?  They have their whole lives ahead of them, but there is both promise and uncertainty in life.  They are in many ways the embodiment of their country in its current state of breakneck development.  Their grandparents are village rice farmers, but they have grown up in modern city houses and go to modern schools.  They already have far more education than their grandparents and somewhat more than their parents.  Yet they like to spend weekends in the country at their grandparents’ village, which for them is just a big playground in a dramatic natural setting.

Soul Calling is divided into three sections: the New Arrivals, the Hmong Americans, and the Hmong of Laos. Why did you decide to organize the photographs you took into these three categories?

It was an easy decision.  My journey fell naturally into those three episodes.

Soul Calling is said to offer an “intricate outside point of view” into the Hmong culture. During your research, you had to interact with many Hmong families. How did you break the barrier between being an outsider and an insider of a community?

In 2008, I flew from Laos to Mexico for an exhibition of my work and to teach a week-long course in digital photography (entirely in Spanish).  My Oaxacan students were the best I have ever had.  They drove me around to visit many pueblos and other special, off-the-beaten-path places to photograph that week.  During one car ride, someone asked me a similar question in Spanish: “how do you gain access so easily to cultures in far away places?”  The answer came easily: “Just look at yourselves. Did I ask to be taken to these special places, the best restaurants, and to meet your families? Did I ask to eat your mother’s best mole on Sunday afternoon?  No, you invited me.” It is the same with Hmong and Lao people. When you show someone that you are genuinely interested in their way of life they will take you by the hand and lead you places you never dreamed of going.  In America, the Hmong are widely misunderstood.  Most Americans lump them together with Vietnamese, Cambodians, and other refugees of the Second Indochina War.  Most Americans couldn’t be bothered to learn anything about their culture.  Once Hmong people in Fresno got to know me and understood that I really wanted to learn about their culture, my phone rang every week with invitations to funerals, weddings, graduation parties, hu pligs, camping trips, etc., etc.

You grew up in the Central Valley and currently live in Fresno, which contains a large population of Hmong. Having been their neighbors for such a long time, did you encounter any surprises about the Hmong culture?

Even though Hmong people and many other ethnic groups live together in the Valley, most people don’t know the Hmong at all.  Theirs is a hidden world.  They are largely self-sufficient and incredibly well-organized and close-knit.  Doing the Soul Calling project was like discovering a whole new world in my own backyard; every day was filled with surprises.

Within the section “Hmong Americans” the photographs focus on the older, more traditional generation of Hmong people and focus less on the voices of the younger, more Americanized generation. What was your reasoning behind choosing photographs for this section?

There are also photographs of Hmong nightclubs, vendors selling Hmong Hotties calendars, young Hmong using video camcorders and cell phones, as well as tossing the ball at New Year.  In the chapter called Hmong Americans, I detail the Lee family members’ accomplishments: a daughter who is a tenure track professor, a son with an MFA in creative writing, another son who teaches math and has developed Hmong language curriculum for the county schools.  One subject I intended to cover but never did is Hmong gangs.  I actually found someone who could lead me to them, but in the whirlwind of a busy schedule, I never followed up.

As I photographer, I seek to document cultural ephemera.  I want to capture that which will be gone in fifty years.  Why waste Heyday’s resources printing graduation photos?  They are interesting only to the graduate’s family, and no one else.  The same goes for pictures of someone buying a new car or moving into a brand new suburban tract house.

Fifty years from now, how many practicing Hmong shamans will there be in California?  How many funerals will use a giant pig as a centerpiece or burn piles of spirit money at the end or dress the deceased in military regalia from a secret war half a century ago?  I seek to capture what is precious and vanishing, not what mainstream culture has already been doing for a long time.

What is your favorite section of Soul Calling and why?

Yer Lee: A Hmong Shaman Tells Her Story.  It is the best piece of writing in the book.  The language is clear and swift.  The story itself is amazing.  Getting inside Yer Lee’s head and writing the story in her voice was my greatest creative challenge in making the book.

How long did it take you to write Soul Calling?

The writing was completed in one year.  For about four months I wrote nearly every morning, grinding out a first draft.  I write more by revising than by composing.  Each day I revised the previously completed work before writing any new paragraphs.  After finishing the whole draft, I further revised the text dozens, even hundreds of times.  If Heyday hadn’t printed the book, I would still be revising it.

How do you think Soul Calling speaks to the current conversation of prominent Hmong literary texts, such as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and The Latehomecomer?

It is the first book to contribute a visual dimension to the discourse.  That is why I insisted on no captions and no integration of text in the photographic sections.  I wanted those sections to be a pure visual experience, like film.  Second, it is one of the first books ever to tell its story from a photographer’s point of view, going behind the lens to investigate what motivates someone to acquire an image and to follow their stream of consciousness as they make critical decisions, creative, logistical, even moral.

How are you planning to continue the Hmong project after writing Soul Calling?

I would like to develop the Yer Lee story in to a feature film, write the adaptation and direct it.

You end Soul Calling with the story of Yer Lor Lee. Her section ends with a quote : “My greatest fear is that our culture will disappear and our families will fall apart.” After studying the culture for five years from an outside point of view, do you think there is a chance the Hmong culture will ever disappear?

Culture never disappears, but it constantly evolves and changes.  The book 1493 completely changed my way of thinking about culture.  Even though that book deals with the biosphere and the massive environmental changes that occurred worldwide as a result of the contact between the peoples of two hemispheres, I realized that the same dynamic occurs with cultures.  Whenever there is a collision of two or more cultures, as in the Hmong American resettlement, there is a great opportunity for a photographer, writer, or filmmaker to capture the old ways before they vanish and to explore the wonderful pickles-and-ice cream fusion that gives birth to a hybrid culture.

In my journey, I also learned that there is no such thing as a pure, unadulterated culture anywhere.  Even in the high mountains of Xam Neua, some villages had solar panels on bamboo poles, which they used to charge cell phones and power radios.  I had to trek all the way up there to learn that my quest was faulty.  All cultures are in a constant of change.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Soul Calling?

It was a wonderful creative experience to work with the staff at Heyday to make Soul Calling.