BY Harley Wong in Interviews | 20 FEB 24

Pao Houa Her’s Photographs Reframe the Homeland Illusion

For the release of her debut monograph and latest exhibition, the photographer shares stories of family, displacement and reimagines Hmong culture

BY Harley Wong in Interviews | 20 FEB 24

Fantasies of being grandma’s favourite grandchild, founding a new homeland and other personal illusions inhabit Pao Houa Her’s meticulously composed photographs, drawing from the Hmong peoples’ history, culture and life. ‘We are a people without a country’, Her told me. ‘We are also people that have historically always been run out of the countries we were residing in.’

Since the late 18th century, Hmong people who faced ethnic persecution in China have fled to countries in Southeast Asia, including Laos, where Her was born. In the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited and trained Hmong soldiers in Laos to fight in support of US forces. Among those recruited were Her’s grandfather, and later, her father. ‘The war was my father’s only choice. If you’re a soldier, you’re fed, and he needed to sustain himself’, she explained. ‘Why would anybody allow a 10-year-old or 12-year-old boy to fight? Was it worth it to have so many people die? Why are we not asking the American government why they continue to engage in conflicts around the world?’ (The Intercept reported in 2022 that US Special Operations forces have been involved in proxy wars in Asia as recently as 2020.) Hmong soldiers died at a rate ten times that of US soldiers in Vietnam. Her’s grandfather was one of the casualties.

Pao Houa Her
Pao Houa Her, untitled, 2021–2022, from the ‘Mt. Shasta’ series. Courtesy: the artist and Aperture

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the US pulled out of Laos, leaving its Hmong allies exposed to reprisal killings and persecution by the Lao government. Her’s parents left Laos in 1983, shortly after the artist was born, and stayed in refugee camps in Thailand before settling in Minnesota, where she lives today. This history of displacement and forced migration exists as an undercurrent in the artist’s photography practice, but her images meditate, not on the trauma of such experiences, but on the dreams that sustain her and her community.

Pao Houa Her
Pao Houa Her, Jungle Fire, 2017, 3D lenticular print, 75 × 100 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Aperture

Her’s debut monograph with Aperture, My grandfather turned into a tiger… and other illusions (2024), and accompanying exhibition, ‘And Other Illusions’, currently at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York, unite a decade of work in which loss is felt, but not belaboured. The series ‘My grandfather turned into a tiger’ (2016–18) includes nine digitally altered images based on a studio portrait of Her’s young cousin, Pao Sao, dressed in traditional Hmong attire and standing in front of a scenic backdrop covered with artificial flowers.

Her’s grandmother commissioned the original photograph while in a refugee camp in Thailand before permanently parting ways with Pao Sao, whose father did not want to relocate to the US. ‘My cousins and my siblings and I always knew that this image was of my grandmother’s favourite grandchild. For Christmas, as a joke, I Photoshopped all my cousins’s faces onto this image’, said Her, referring to the variations of the original portrait. ‘So, in some ways, we all became my grandmother’s favourite grandchild!’

Pao Houa Her
Pao Houa Her, ‘And Other Illusions’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York; photograph: Lloyd McCullough

Proxies are a repeated motif in Her’s oeuvre. They attest to a bittersweet quality in which a photo comes to represent a loved one who is out of reach. Sometimes, it is not a person that is the object of longing, but a place, or even a concept. ‘In my family, the idea of returning to a place that they can call their own is so important for them. I am thinking about homeland, but through the eyes of my grandmother, who would talk about a space or a place that both feels very familiar but also very distant’, Her explained. ‘As an artist, I often think about what that space would look like.’

Pao Houa Her
Pao Houa Her, My grandfather turned into a tiger… and other illusions, 2024, double-page spread. Courtesy: the artist and Aperture

The ineffability of that intangible space is particularly apparent in the 3D lenticular prints on view at Baxter St. Disorienting yet mesmerizing, the images shapeshift as you move around them, ever elusive and impossible to pin down. Due to the lenticular effect in Flower Penis (2017), for example, it’s not easy to make out the erect penis, obscured by a field of pink dancing poppies, much less that the uniformly green flower stems are in fact plastic.

In Her’s photographs, the artist places her family and Minnesota’s Hmong community among florals that will never wither, against waterfalls that will never run muddy or pastures that will never yellow. A tangible homeland may not exist but Her’s synthetic approximations of it –perfect and unchanging – hold immense possibility.

Pao Houa Her's ‘And Other Illussions’ is on view at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York until 20 March

My grandfather turned into a tiger… and other illusions is published by Aperture

Main image: Pao Houa Her, real opium behind opium backdrop, 2020, light box, 1.3 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: the artist and 

Harley Wong is an arts writer and editor based between New York and San Francisco.