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‘Soul Calling’: Joel Pickford’s Hmong photo exhibit is immersive, impressive

Every once in a while I get a chance to really relish a story topic by spending a significant amount of time reporting and researching it. That was the case with photographer Joel Pickford’s impressive exhibit “Soul Calling: A Photographic Journey Through the Hmong Diaspora.” I was able in my Sunday Spotlight centerpiece column to devote a big chunk of text to this important show at the Fresno Art Museum, which took eight years (and more than 50,000 images) for Pickford to put together. In my column I write:

In Pickford’s remarkable project, which started as an in-depth ethnographic look at recent Hmong arrivals to the Central Valley and later expanded into repeated trips to Laos itself, you get a glimpse of profound generational changes as members of the Hmong Diaspora have settled into their adopted culture. And you get a feel for the fascinating and stalwart country they left behind …

For a year, he focused exclusively on these recent arrivals, who were basically arriving unprepared for a new country years after earlier refugees had already made lives for themselves. He made memorable images: A young boy with no toys scrapes in the dirt in front of a tired, unlandscaped apartment complex. A man sits with his two wives on a couch as a relative watches TV in the background. A young pregnant woman stands in front of a mirror as she struggles into her too-tight Hmong New Year dress.

We were able to use three of Pickford’s photos in the print edition, which I’ve included on the jump. For more, check out this online photo gallery from the project. And make plans to visit the Fresno Art Museum to view the exhibition, along with “Threads of Life: The Art of Houa Vang,” an exhibition of story cloths and decorative clothing from a prominent local Hmong-American artist. The shows run through Jan. 6.

An 18-year-old mother cuts rice stalks in Xieng Khouang Province. Photo by Joel Pickford.

Pregnant Ka Vue (a psuedonym) gets ready for Hmong New Year in Fresno. Photo by Joel Pickford.

Ker Yang looks over his land southeast of Fresno. Photo by Joel Pickford

Responses to "‘Soul Calling’: Joel Pickford’s Hmong photo exhibit is immersive, impressive"

Stephen says:

I have long been a fan of Joel’s. I’ve been able to speak to him (very) sporadically over the years as he’s told some of his stories.

But these photos are better than the best I’d previously seen from him. Were he working for a magazine he’d be Pulitzer-bound. The old man kneeling on his haunches on the back porch of his new home? The young girl with the younger child?

Absolutely stunning work. I trust and hope this gallery exhibit gets picked up and travels the country as it should.

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