“Portraits of Hmong Women” is a unique, photographic documentary that captures the stories of Hmong women in an exhibit created to build awareness, preserve history, break down the barriers of oppression and stereotypes and provide education. For the past two years (2004-2006), Ms. Vang and Ms. Xiong, interviewed a variety of Hmong women, ranging from older generations who grew up in their homeland of Laos to present-day Hmong-American women striving to change the course of Hmong society.
The documentary reveals the women’s memories of life in Laos, their often heart-breaking escape from the atrocities of the Vietnam War, and their adjustment to new lives in America . The portraits feature two images of each woman in one frame. One image is of the woman in her present environment, and the other of that same woman in traditional Hmong clothing. Combining both images provides a stark time lapse depicting each woman’s present identity and how she reconciles that with a difficult past. The traditional clothing identifies each woman within her Hmong clan and illustrates an appreciation of herself, pride and dignity in her heritage, and a sense of belonging.
“Portraits of Hmong Women” frames specific issues, such as living with polygamy, losing cultural identity, breaking the mold of the “traditional passive” woman role, growing up bi-culture, and coping with mental, emotional and physical abuse. Their contributions may seem small, but like each human being their experiences and challenges deserve tribute as they offer a global insight into the untold lives of Hmong women. The stories are both poignant and uplifting and resonate with people of all cultures and backgrounds.
Many books, research and studies have touched on the subject of Hmong women but have not given the women themselves voices or told stories from their point of view. This documentary contains past and recent experiences of Hmong women and how cultural, environmental, and social factors influence and shape their lives. With the last wave of Hmong migrating recently from Watt Them Kapok refugee camp in Thailand to more developed nations, this documentary is significant in capturing the vanishing stories of the last generation of Hmong women from the Vietnam War era and from the homelands of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.
How the interviews were conducted
Hmong women were picked from personal references through the writers’ connections in the Hmong community. The key factor was not to duplicate stories. After choosing the participants, the writers set up various times and dates over a two-year period to talk to the participants and photograph them. Ms. Vang’s research was conducted while spending time with the participants – cooking, eating, and conversing in a casual atmosphere — to build trust and a relationship with the participants. When traveling to meet participants out of town, Ms. Vang brought her family with her to partake in the whole experience of “getting to know your neighbor.” Ms. Vang visited the Hmong women one to three times to interview them as well as photography them. Ms. Xiong conducted her interviews the same way, with some interviews over the phone. The majority of the conversations were recorded. After each interview, the writers would write the participant’s story in first person, putting themselves in the participant’s shoes. The writers then sent the story to the participants to review and edit for accuracy and content. Two women chose to write their own stories, Mai Neng Moua and Pa Moua. Sara Woelfel edited all the stories.