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Monochrome Study 1

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From the late 1990s to the present, for better or worse, in searching for my own roots and heritage I was given a distinctive level of access behind the scenes of the Lao and Southeast Asian American community in diaspora.

I wasn't a professional photographer, and was often issued terrible equipment to work with, but I made do.

Over the last 25 years, the result has been a body of work that emerged in many instances as the sole documentation of many events and gatherings because I was one of the only people who cared enough to take a picture of particular scenes and to suggest one day they might have significance. Sometimes I was right, sometimes, less so. I take a lot of criticism for that, even as I often get asked if I have photos from those moments decades later.

I often made a wider range of the images available to our community at large rather than let them get lost in an obscure memory hole where the participants in these events never got to see themselves even when others with more professional training from our community were supposedly documenting the occasion.

In the process of studying and researching the various media archives across the US, it became clear, while several refugee communities from Southeast Asia were covered with relative regularity, the Lao were not, and that journey is presently far more difficult to share visually than it is for many others.

In making the transition to life in the US many families had to leave behind the few photos of their lives in Laos they might have had, for both practical reasons and safety issues out of concerns of retaliation for their various roles in supporting the US and their allies during the Southeast Asian conflicts. In the 90s and early 2000s, as I visited many families, it was often one of the first things we did with excitement: sharing the few photos they had as treasures, even as we acknowledged the massive decade-long gaps for part of our lives. There's a certain heartbreak of loved ones for whom there are no pictures at all.

As we prepared for the Laomagination 45 exhibit to mark the 45th anniversary of our community in diaspora, in between the challenges of the Pandemic and other social issues, our ability to prepare many of the images and stories we wanted to look back on became distinctively complicated. But here are some of the first we were able to gather and share from my vantage point.

Some of the people I would have included are missing by their request, others will be included in follow-ups to this piece, such as MONOCHROME STUDY 2 and 3. But for today I hope this gives you a sense of some the scope of what we seek to remember across a wide emotional valence of refugee joy, grief, curiosity, hope, memory, and imagination. Thank you for being a part of this journey.

I particularly thank the Joyce Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, the Asian Pacific Endowment, Forecast Public Art, Springboard for the Arts, the Rhizome Foundation, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Big Car Collaborative & Tube Factory, the Matatu Storytelling Festival, the SEAD Project, Sahtu Press, the Pom Foundation, the Lao Advancement Organization, Laos in the House, TeAda Productions, Refugenius Productions, Kinnaly, the Royal Lao Classical Dancers of Tennessee, Poets House, Kearny Street Workshop, the Center for Lao Studies, my Patreon supporters, the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, Otterbein University, and the UC Merced Center for the Humanities for their support and hospitality over the years to make this and many other aspects of the project possible.

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