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Qeej player at a Lee clan funeral in Fresno, CA, 2007. Photo by Joel Pickford, courtesy of the author’s website

California photographer and filmmaker Joel Pickford will be in the Twin Cities this week and next to discuss his new book, “Soul Calling: A Photographic Journey through the Hmong Disapora.” It’s the first such photo-documentary book about this growing immigrant population, and important for that reason alone; as of the 2010 census, more than 260,000 Hmong were confirmed to reside in the U.S., and more than half of those newly minted Americans live in Minnesota and California alone.

The book is divided into three sections – ‘The New Arrivals’, ‘The Hmong Americans,’ and ‘The Hmong of Laos.’ For the project Pickford spent five years, from late 2004 to 2011, documenting the experiences of several thousand Hmong refugees in the midst of starting new lives in America, thousands of miles away from their native country. He travels to the Hmong homeland in the highlands of Laos to document something of these communities’ cultural roots and rhythms. He also spends time in refugee camps in Thailand, and follows a group of Hmong families just arrived in Southern California as they begin to make their way. And he documents the ways in which established Hmong-American families have accommodated both old and new world traditions once they’ve settled into new lives here in America.

Hmong photography studio backdrop depicting the 1975 evacuation of Long Cheng, at the Fresno, CA Hmong New Year celebration. Photo by Joel Pickford, courtesy of the author’s website

His photos are vivid, arresting for their intimacy and candor; the book presents them alone on the page – no captions, no didactic information to distract from the visual story in the images. The photographer was invited into these families’ living rooms and religious ceremonies, and into the cramped quarters of their new California apartments. He documents snapshots of Hmong life, from cradle to grave, in moments of celebration and daily work, and in mourning.

The text of the book consists of personal essays by Pickford and a lovely foreword by St. Paul writer Kao Kalia Yang (author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir”).

For his appearances at various venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Pickford will show a slideshow from the project (including some photographs not in the book), and he’ll discuss the sometimes thorny business of ethnography – questions of access and privilege, and the attempt to capture something of the wider cultural and historical context that has brought Hmong communities to American shores.

Hmong children celebrating the new year in the Vang Vieng valley, Laos, 2006. Photograph by Joel Pickford, courtesy of the author’s website

Joel Pickford will discuss and sign copies of “Soul Calling: A Photographic Journey through the Hmong Diaspora” on Friday, November 2 at 5 p.m. at Concordia University’s Center for Hmong Studies, 275 Syndicate Street N., St. Paul. He will also speak Sunday, November 4 at 2 p.m. at the Central Library, 90 W. 4th Street, St. Paul. And Pickford will appear in two venues on Monday, November 5: at 4 p.m. at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Bookstore, 300 Washington Avenue SE, Minneapolis; and at 7 p.m. at the Minneapolis Photo Center, 2400 North Second Street, Minneapolis. For more events and additional information on the project: http://joelpickford.com/g_hmong-project.php.

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