I've been reading Claiming Place On the Agency of Hmong Women by Chia Youyee Vang, Faith Nibbs, and Ma Vang. There was one particular chapter that forced me think about the visuals that are generally chosen for history books, The Women of "Dragon Capital" Marriage Alliances and the Rise of Vang Pao written by Mai Na M. Lee, a history professor from the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. Who gets to decide what pictures goes into a book? Can the photos in a history book aid or take away from someone's writing?
In The Women of Dragon Capital, Lee describes a history of Hmong elites who held social political power in Southeast Asia prior to or leading up to the Vietnam war. Her chapter focuses on Vang Pao's (or also known as General Vang Pao) marriages, how his wives brought political ties, trust among many Hmong elitist families and clans, thus in the title, "the rise of Vang Pao".
In this chapter was one photo of General Vang Pao and two of his wives. This photo captured Vang Pao wearing everyday clothing, standing in between his two wives with the description underneath the photo:
Figure 4.3 Vang Pao and his two favorite wives. [L-R]: Chia Moua, Vang Pao, and Song Moua in the background of their house in Westminster, California. Author's Collection, 2004. (Lee 107)
The other visuals in this chapter were two family trees mapping out the political figures that became powerful allies with Vang Pao through his marriages (Lee 95,97). There just wasn't enough evidence visually to convince me that Vang Pao's wives were more than political tools.
I decided to Google search General Vang Pao (GVP). I noticed that most of the photos are of him in a suits and military/camel uniform. Thinking back to Lee's writing about Vang Pao, where are his wives? If Vang Pao wouldn't have been able to be The General without his wives, why do I hear and see more about Vang Pao the war general and less about Vang Pao, a Hmong man whose status was built on marriages with various different women who helped him obtain the trust and power to lead many Hmong people into the Secret War?
There's few writing about quintessential figures, particular historical movements, yet, even fewer focus on Hmong history through the camera, photography and media arts. In conclusion, I'm skeptical about this chapter. I think my feelings about this chapter would be less skeptical if there were more photos of GVP with all his wives published in history books and circulating online search engines. The language that describes the wives in this chapter also leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
As a visual learner, I'm a firm believer that art and history can't be one without the other. In this chapter, Lee's photo served as evidence and an archive of the past. The photo of Vang Pao aided in humanizing a extremely powerful and political figure in Hmong history. He's a person, he has feelings, he wears button up t-shirts like every other dude, and it represented a window into his private life, displaying whom he favors among the wives. It made me think about how powerful one image can be when juxtaposed with writing that doesn't fully support the image. This one photo painted a jarring experience while reading this chapter. There's probably reasons as to why many photographs can't be published or printed, like getting permission, licensing and copyright issues. A part of me feels that I shouldn't make conclusions from one reading, and that I may be reading too much into this chapter and its visuals.
Please buy or pick up Claiming Place, read it and let me know what you think.
Lee, Mai Na M. "The Women of Dragon Capital: Marriage Alliances and the Rise of Vang Pao". Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women. Ed. Chia Youyee Vang, Faith Nibbs, Ma Vang. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 86-116. Print.