Photos by Galen Beery & Shayle Miller
Written by Lar Yang
“A photograph freezes a moment in time,” Doug Hulcher – refugee camp photographer once told me.
For the last three years, William Cha and I have spent countless hours, scanning and digitally repairing thousands of photographs for the Hmongstory 40 project. It is time consuming work and requires a lot patience. But in return we got such a rare and intimate glance into Hmong history. It was an astonishing experience and emotionally exhausting endeavor.
The first sets of black and white negatives we scanned were from the collection of Galen Beery, whom I have become extraordinarily close with. When one first looks at a black and white negative, it’s difficult to tell how the photos will look because the negative images are reversed. But after they are scanned and transformed into vivid photographs, something very special happens.
Each time the scanner finishes scanning a negative, a new photograph would appear on the computer screen. Each photograph, an intimate, personal story frozen in time, would slowly and quietly emerge back to life.
Maybe history forgot about them – these unknown truths – whispers that survived through oral storytelling but absent in literary texts.
It was as if small pieces of our Hmong history—stories of our struggles—once forgotten by time, are now re-awakened, a memory coming to light. Native American Indians once believed that a photograph trapped a person’s soul. To me, the negatives are stories that had been etched into small negatives, then became lost to time. Maybe history forgot about them – these unknown truths – whispers that survived through oral storytelling but absent in literary texts.
Galen Beery worked for International Volunteer Services (IVS) and spent 10 years photographing people of Laos, especially Hmong. In total, we restored over 3,000 photos. Each photograph unapologetically retells the truth about the Hmong struggles and survival in Laos around the 1960s to about the mid-1970s. The photos reveal the harshness of life that our elders had to endure. The Hmong had been refugees since they f led China, south to countries like Vietnam and Laos, the Hmong were unwanted refugees in foreign countries. Despite such unwelcoming animosity towards the Hmong at that time, the Hmong endured and scratched out a living among the harshest, highest mountain plateaus where most other ethnic people would not dare attempt to persevere against such a hard existence.
As more photos were scanned and brought back to life, the photographs started to speak in detail about the story of the Secret War. Each photo seems to speak of how the Hmong found themselves in the middle of a Communist-driven civil war, and of how we sacrificed our fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons in the name of honor and courage and freedom. Each photo speaks of how primitive slash-and-burn farmers were, illiterate and pre-literate people who, without a written language, suddenly became T-28 pilots overnight.
Each photo speaks of how the Hmong were driven from their homes as the War engulfed the kingdom of a million elephants.
It speaks with an aura of sadness of how, for nearly a generation, Hmong children began to believe that rice fell from the sky because their parents lived on the constant run, never staying in one place long enough to grow and harvest a season of their own rice on the mountainous slopes. Their fathers worked not as farmers in the fields but as soldiers in a Secret War, so their family could receive rice rations from the sky, dropped down by Air America airplanes.
In effect, living while on the run families made building temporary shelters appear like homeless vagrants fleeing with their children. Truly, a whole generation of Hmong were born as refugees on the run. Sadly, many young children died.
The elders, whose lives were disrupted and their spirits broken and devastated by the War, would surrender to the inevitability by ingesting pea-sized chunks of opium. It is one thing to hear the whispers of these stories from our parents, but for the first time, through the experience of scanning these photographs, I got to experience the stories that are hard to find words to explain. Perhaps even by sharing with you this experience, my words fail to genuinely paint the vividness and intensity of each moment as I gazed at the newly generated images of the Hmong people on my monitor.
Truly, a whole generation of Hmong were born as refugees on the run.
Besides Galen Beery, Dr. Shayle Miller, was another photographer who donated his photos to our project. We also scanned about 2,000 photos from his collection. He was a young doctor who spent some time in Thailand, treating health ailments of the Hmong and Cambodian refugees. He started buying Hmong Paj Ntaub (story cloths) and helped many refugees by taking Paj Ntaub back to the states and selling them in America. He became very close friends with his Hmong-English translator, Bryant Lee. Dr. Miller took many photos of Bryant’s family.
Dr. Miller met Bryant who was translating in the transition camp Phanatnikhom. Soon Bryant helped to organize and collected Paj Ntaub from families, friends, and neighbors in Vinai to give to Dr Miller.
In the beginning Dr. Miller would buy the Paj Ntaub and sell them to foreign workers at other camps far from Ban Vinai. Dr Miller facilitated the sales without any compensation other than to help the Hmong families. Dr. Miller brought many Paj Ntaub with him to the United States and Bryant later organized the sending of boxes. Dr Miller would sell the Paj Ntaub at art and craft fairs. This resulted in thousands of dollars being sent back to the Hmong families in Vinai who didn’t have any other means of income. This benefited many families living in Ban Vinai camp.
I told Dr. Miller that his photos are very compassionate and raw; some are so intensely honest that they are hard to look at. He captured the stories of the refugee camps through the eyes of a modern medical healer—a western doctor experiencing the plight of refugees, the victims of war in a third world country. He told me that he photographed what he saw because he was afraid no one would believe him without photographs as evidence.
On the cover of 2017 Txhawb is a breath-taking black and white photo of Bryant Lee’s mother (Zoua Vang, the wife of Cha Long Lee) already a sixty-year-old grandmother then, photographed with her granddaughter Sia Lee. The family were living in the famous Ban Vinai Refugee camp in 1983 when this photo was taken. Bryant Lee’s family had been refugees in Thailand since 1976. They first settled in Camp Nam Yao before entering Vinai in 1982. By 1986, Ban Vinai refugee camp peaked at 42,000 refugees. The photos were taken in a hot, humid concrete room where the family lived and sewed paj ntaub together. Her photo is hauntingly beautiful because it captures the beauty of all Hmong grandmothers. When you look at this photo is triggers the memory of your own grandmother. The incredible strength and wisdom written in her aged wrinkles spoke truthfully of her life and experience.