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Binly Documents the Often Forgotten Stories of Lao Americans

Binly Documents the Often Forgotten Stories of Lao Americans

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“as Lao people, we often think about what home and homeland means to us”, says the multi-award-winning poet, dancer and photographer Krysada ‘Binly’ Phounsiri. “Bridging those connections in the medium of photography and art is an avenue I feel strongly for.” We’ve featured his wonderful work before. This time, Binly’s focus is on the history of Laotian Americans and people of Lao descent living in the US. He hopes to highlight the decades-long experience of their diaspora using his artistic talents as a photographer. Via an online project titled Secret No More, an Expression of Humanity, he plans to have these images in a gallery in San Diego when the pandemic situation becomes more favorable.

When you hear about wars in recent history, the conflict in Laos from a few decades ago is often overlooked. The relegation of this war to a seemingly irrelevant status is because it was mostly a covert CIA operation, unofficially termed as the ‘Secret War‘. The aim was to cripple the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the communist Pathet Lao group (allied with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union). A relentless aerial incursion was inflicted upon Laos by the USA between 1964 and 1973. Much of the 2.7 million tons of explosives still remain under Laos soil and injure or kill close to 300 people a year. To date, Laos holds the unfortunate record of being the most bombed country on our planet. The dissolution of the Laos monarchy in 1975 kickstarted an exodus of Laotians. Many made their way to refugee camps across the border to Thailand and eventually migrated to America. About a quarter of a million Americans today trace their roots to Laos. They are still one of the most underrepresented communities of the AAPI. As a Laotian American himself, Binly ensures that his creative endeavors spread awareness about their cultural identity in the USA. He assembled an online photo documentary focusing on Lao Americans, their cultural events in the USA, and the ties back to their homeland.

The Phoblographer: What was the driving force behind this photo series on Laotian Americans? What are some of the other reasons that led to its conceptualization?

Binly: The main driving force behind this project is to bring visibility to Laotian American struggles, resilience, history, and culture. Our population in the US, based on the most recent Census, is around 254,000. Although the population is quite small, it is in direct contrast to the fact that Laos was the most bombed country per capita in the history of the planet. The bombings were a direct result of the Secret War campaign – A US CIA lead operation to destroy the Vietcong’s travel routes to infiltrate the south via the Ho Chi Minh trail. To prevent the travel through the trail, which went into the jungles of Laos, bombs were dropped constantly. On top of that, efforts to win the advantage between the Soviets and the US put Laos into a heavily de-stabilized country with Civil War breaking out. From Legacies of War, “From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years” – http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/

The various wars taking place in Southeast Asia during the Cold War affected that region heavily. We often hear about the Vietnam War, but realistically, it did not just take place in Vietnam. Laos often gets pushed aside in the historical context of that time period due to the Secret War being highly confidential for decades after. The people of Laos who fled the country became Refugees whose diaspora lead to separated families and challenges of resettling in a new country. This would lead to generational trauma and difficult notions of what home/homeland truly mean. Circling back to the motivation behind the project – 40+ years after the initial wave of refugees fleeing the country, it is time that the very people who come from this history be the ones who explore and document it. We are more than just victims of war, yet the impact of these wars affect the people of Laos, who fled all over the world. I need to contribute to telling our story, documenting our life, and bringing visibility into our experiences. They are often ignored or drowned out by larger conversations in the Asian American Community. Alongside the many growing Laotian American Artist, Community Leaders, Educators, and Grass Roots Activist, I want to create something and ensure there are no excuses to exclude our history.

Lastly, I want to celebrate the diversity within the Laotian American Community by highlighting photos and artwork by Lao, Hmong, Lue, and Mien American folks, more ethnicities to be added. There is a lot of ground to continue covering for the project. To photograph life in America as well as in Laos is important to me because as Lao people, we often think about what home and homeland means to us. Bridging those connections in the medium of photography and art is an avenue I feel strongly for.

The Phoblographer: What photography gear (camera, lenses, modifiers etc.) did you use for this project? Tell us how this helped achieve your creative vision for this series.

Binly: The majority of photos in the gallery are shot with the original Canon 6D. The main lens I used for the project is the Zeiss 50mm f1.4 Planar. I also used the Zeiss Milvus 85mm f1.4 and the Zeiss APO Sonnar f2 for some of the portraits and studio work. In some events, I used the Canon 5DSR. I no longer have the 6D, the 85mm, and the 135mm, but they were all great in making images for the project.

The Canon 6D + Zeiss 50mm combo was my favorite for a long time. I love the manual focus of the Zeiss lenses. Once I got used to using AF Confirm and pre-focusing my shots, I can focus on the actual life in front of me. It was instinct. This combo was also the lightest from my original gear, so I was able to move fast, travel to tough places, and get the shots I needed. They were not weather sealed, but I was able to protect my gear for the most part. The 50mm gave me a street photography/documentary vibe that I enjoyed navigating with. Besides some of the studio portraits I shot of Lao American artists, most of the photos were shot in natural light. Whatever available light was present outdoor or indoor was what I tried to make the most out of. There’s [a] genuine feeling of life I get from natural lighting that was necessary for the project. I was more concerned about photographing the people and bringing out their most genuine feeling at the moment.

For future additions to the project, I will use my current camera and will save up for an even more compact shooter for travel. My main gear right now is a Leica S 007, S 70mm f/2.5, and S 120mm f/2 Macro Lens. Got ’em all used. I love this gear for portrait work and looking forward to what I’ll add to the project. It’s mainly used for my portrait and fashion work currently.

The Phoblographer: How long did the series take to complete? What were some of the challenges and hindrances you faced to get it done?

Binly: The earliest photos I used for the project were probably from 2015. The actual project, which was made possible by the Critical Refugee Studies Collective and UCSD Spaces, took a year and a half to get it where it is at now. The pandemic was a huge challenge, no way to ignore the effects that the pandemic brought upon travel. This is the very reason why I shifted the gallery to digital for now. Originally, I wanted to travel to various cities, scan Refugee photos, and take portraits of Lao folks. The pandemic put a complete stop to that, as COVID-19 affected the Lao American Community across the states. I was not able to mobilize. I still plan on doing a physical gallery and a community event later this year, when we are in a safer condition to do so.

Another challenge is getting families to share their Refugee photos, or have their portraits being taken and having it be associated with their past. The Refugee experience is often very personal, private, and traumatic for many, especially our elders. There is still a fear about exposing themselves to the public, a fear that the Lao Government or people in the community will cause a conflict. Thus, it is often better in their eyes to stay quiet and keep a low profile. I need to respect family boundaries while doing my best to truly unpack the complicated nature of our experiences. It is a challenge that I do not take lightly. I must be patient.

I do not see my project as complete, but I do feel like releasing the work where it’s at now. The platform needs to be established, and the timing is critical in having people think about who we are. It is a platform to which I can continue the project moving forward. My next plan is to travel to Laos and photograph the UXO sites. There are still tons of Unexploded Ordinances that harm and kill people in Laos. They are still resting in the villages and towns where the bombs were dropped. I write poems about this a few times. The past still haunts people; the bombs are still alive. The issue will not go away with the passing of time.

The Phoblographer: What does being a Lao American mean to you personally? How have you incorporated this in these images?

Binly: Being Lao American means constantly living in between two worlds, two languages, two conflicting histories, two customs, and weaving them together to shape who I am. Being Lao American means understanding my roots, going beyond just the wars and digging up fragments of my family’s history while being completely able to navigate in America. I was born in Laos and raised in San Diego since coming to America when I was close to 2 years old. Growing up, you often do not fit in and are seen as foreign in both worlds. However, you can see the beauty and struggles of both, so you know how to communicate and connect with a better perspective. I push to find what is universal among all of us.

I find it important that a Lao person is the photographer who is shooting for this project. I am not saying that only Lao people should photograph/document Lao Culture and Life, but how many Lao American photographers do you know? How many Lao American people do you actually know? In order to capture a genuine, honest look into our world, I aim to photograph my community in ways that others will not be able to. I understand our nuances, the complexities of communication and customs. The folks in various communities, whether in the States or in Laos trust me, which is why I do my best to photograph truth from them. Truth in their expression, truth in the feeling behind the events or performance, and truth in our history. I am not the only Lao American photographer and encourage others to do the same for their community. The misrepresentation of Culture and People often came with a Colonialist perspective, especially towards Laos but definitely not exclusive to us. All I am doing is challenging myself and others to tell our story in whatever medium we are passionate about. One fortunate thing about San Diego is that we have a good number of photographers in the Lao American Community who have documented many events. They are older than me, and I will include them in the physical gallery when it surfaces.

The Phoblographer: On its website, I noticed a segment on AB-1393 for this series. Could you tell us more about what this is about?

Binly: AB-1393 was an Education Amendment Bill to the original SB-895 Bill. The SB-895 bill was an attempt to include Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong American History in the California K-12 Curriculum. It was a bill to start the process and lay the foundation to teach cultural and historical studies of the above communities. From what I gather, it was meant to be a curriculum guide and would be taught as an elective under the Ethnic Studies umbrella.

Missing from the above Groups were Lao Americans. It is a little confusing, but I will do my best to summarize a little history: Laos is a country of roughly 7.1 million people; within Laos, there are numerous ethnicities that include Lao (many categories within Lao as well), Hmong, Iu-Mien, Tai-Lue, the indigenous Khmu, and many others. The bulk group of Lao Americans felt excluded from the original SB-895 Bill, which only included the Hmong but not other peoples of Laos. To provide further context, Hmong Americans also took part in the Secret War. The conflict affected everyone in Laos. Hmong groups were targeted to do guerilla and resistance operations to support the U.S. and combat the dominant Communist party in Laos during the war. However, the Hmong fought on both sides of the war. Ethnic Lao and other ethnic peoples of Laos groups chose different sides as well, either the Communist Anti-Imperialist side or the Royal Lao Army side. Long story short, the West was losing the Vietnam War, aka the 2nd Indochina War, as well as losing support for the war at home. When the U.S. withdrew their troops, they left a lot of resistance groups vulnerable; many who sided with the Royal Lao Army fled the country. They came from many ethnic backgrounds; however, Hmong and Lao were the largest groups. The Hmong American Community is larger in population compared to Lao American (which includes the other ethnicities because they have not been recognized as their own ethnic group yet under the Census), 327,000 vs 254,000 respectively.

Circling back to the Education Bill, it was decided that the idea of teaching the history stemming from the Vietnam War would be a great addition to U.S. History. The problem was that Lao and Hmong folks share the same history when it came to why they are Refugees fleeing Laos in the first place. AB-1393 was an amendment bill to include Lao Americans alongside Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong American Culture and History studies. The AB-1393 campaign included numerous Lao American Organizations and state legislators supporting the effort. The campaign was largely led by LaoSD (Lao Advocacy Organization of San Diego), AIM (Advocates for Iu Mien in California), and LAAO (Lao American Advancement Organization). Former Assemblymember and now California Secretary of State, Dr Shirley Weber, was the original author of the AB-1393 Bill.

The Bills are strictly for the State of California; it was not federal. AB-1393 passed through both the California House and Senate. It was bi-partisan and was voted on unanimously. Sadly, it was vetoed by our Governor, Gavin Newsom. It would eventually become nearly impossible to override the veto. Our efforts have shifted until there is more support and momentum behind the larger Ethnic Studies campaign in California. We will wait and work with various group to campaign once more once there is better guidance from the Education / Ethnic Studies groups. The Lao American Community usually try to avoid politics. It was one of the first times I’ve seen folks in various cities really supporting a unified cause in the Lao American Community. It was even more heartbreaking to see it all stop at the end. We’ll be back.

The Phoblographer: Is the ‘Warzone’ segment an indirect look back at the struggles of the Secret War? Please tell us more about this in relation to the project. What is the significance of the children in these images?

Binly: Yes. ‘Warzone’ is a poem I wrote. It is part of my 2nd Poetry Book, “Every Passing Minute”. The poem is a play on war but juxtaposing it with a water fight that took place during one of our Lao New Year celebrations at the temple, Wat Lao Buddharam. ‘Warzone’, both the poem and the photos, show the happy nature of our community in times of celebration. Water during our New Years is used to wash away the past year and its struggles. Water blesses us and welcomes the New Year. The youth made it more fun while doing water fights; it is a part of our culture. I used to partake in these water fights, a pleasant part of my childhood. While observing the children playing and thinking about all the stories my elders and leaders would tell me, it made me take a step back and think about what would have been. Children are often the most vulnerable in any war; it made me think about our past and how the children celebrating New Year with water guns are blessed to not experience what our elders did. It made me happy, as much as it made me scared thinking about how our history haunts us. Through it all, ‘Warzone’ is hopeful in the sense that it resists violence via water fights and throws some juxtaposition to the reader. Imagine those weapons being real; during the Secret War, it was.

The Phoblographer: There’s a key difference in the ‘Work of Father‘ and ‘Work of Mother segments you’ve photographed. The former is predominantly in black and white, while the latter is in full color. What were the reasons behind these choices?

Binly: I am often conflicted when photographing in this space. My heart is with Black & White Photography, but our community is so beautiful in color, so I do my best to highlight that. The beauty of our fashion and textiles must be seen. In the series between my Father and Mother, I wanted [to] contrast them in all the ways that I can. They divorced a while back. Throughout my childhood, I saw how conflicting they were, almost total opposites in how they communicated with each other, their mannerisms, and their approach [to] everyday things. Specifically, to their series, my Dad’s work is often done in solitude. He was a printer before owning his restaurant, both were equally important in how I saw my Father through the years. The days leading up to his retirement were somber, given the pandemic situation causing his restaurant to take huge hits in revenue. My older Sister helped out my Father at the restaurant in the early years, and my younger Brother helped out my Father in the later years. They both did great. The series though, covers mainly moments when my Father was alone with his thoughts. He often became reflective of his entire life when it was only him during the last months before closing down. Grief, regret, and frustration often resided in his mind. He toughed it out the best he can, and he doesn’t express much to others. I don’t want him to suffer in silence, so I would take photos of him, keep him company through it all. It really made me think about who he was as a man. He made the choice to leave his side of his family to bring us to America with my Mother’s side of the family. The Land of Opportunity. He was truly a man stuck between two worlds, and the connections never severed. I did not want to paint his jobs as glorious because they were not. All I saw was my Father pushing through his work to make sure he can hold it down for us. It wasn’t pretty, and that’s why I chose to photograph the series in Black & White. It was to remove the colors which added nothing to the emotion behind the photos. He had no retirement party, it was just me and him going through the pandemic and closing up the restaurant.

Contrasted to my Mother. Her retirement was a happy one. It was hard for her to let it go because she was worried about what to do next. Both my parents were doing 7 Days of work, often no vacation, but it kept my Mom on her toes. Both my Mother and Father were an integral part of the Lao American community in San Diego. Her shop often brought customers from all around the world, and it was also her place to socialize with many people. Retirement was decided because the shop was losing money just for being open. It did not really help the Family income in the later years, though it was critical in keeping us afloat growing up. My Stepdad and I convinced my Mom to retire. Even more lucky, she closed down almost a year before the pandemic existed. Closing the shop, as you can see, was celebratory. It was full of people who supported her and was happy for her. I felt having color better represented the scene. There was warmth, smiles, singing, and a bittersweet ending that needed color involved to fully grasp the moments. In both segments, I did my best to capture how they were feeling during those times, along with the contrast between the two.

The Phoblographer: This series highlights some of the more public events and festivals celebrated by Lao Americans. Could you shed some light on the lesser-known customs and traditions of Laotian Americans that you have photographed?

Binly: One of my favorite segments for the project is the ‘Festival of Light’ series. It is an event to commemorate the time Buddha got out of meditation and the end of Buddhist Lent. This is called Ock Pansa; in Lao, it takes place in October. To celebrate the Buddha coming out of months long meditation, the Festival of Light event takes place at the temple. A prayer happens, then at night, candles are light, both monks and regular people walk around the temple grounds 3 times. It was a wonderful series because I had to find the best light at night. I used the 5DSR in a lowlight situation which is often the worse way to use that camera, but it worked out.

Another custom that is specific to Laos is called the Baci Ceremony. It is a blessing ceremony for various occasions including weddings, house blessings, New Years, important life events for an individual, sending off people when they leave for a long period of time, etc. Baci Ceremonies are photographed in my ‘Lao New Year’, ‘Lue New Year’, and ‘Cultural Performance segments’.

In Baci Ceremonies, a large Flower Structure is crafted and is at the center of the Baci Ceremony. In it, you will find White Strings used to tie a person’s wrist. This is a spiritual blessing to harmonize a person’s spirit and bring them good luck, among other positive blessings. The center structure also has other items like food, other crafts, and money. They are offerings that are for the specific event. I think I should make the Baci Ceremony its own segment in the future.

The Phoblographer: Let’s talk about your favorite image from this project. Which one best represents the title? Tell us why this resonates the most and how you went about organizing and photographing this?

Binly: I honestly feel that I do not have a favorite image that represents the project. I have one in mind, but it has yet to be photographed. I hope to do so when travel restrictions are lifted, and we are in a safer, non-pandemic world.

In general, I love the portraits I take of people; the ones I’ll be sharing with the Phoblographer are ones I feel represent the many aspects of ‘Secret No More’. Portraits where the people are fully aware of my presence as a photographer, and they give me their rawest expression. I love that. I don’t want to be an outsider trying to photograph my community as if they were a spectacle. I like my photos to represent genuine feelings. My goal is to humanize the Laotian American Community and not just do victim / 3rd World Struggle photography. Many of the people I photograph, I know. I talk to them; I connect with them. They are not just subjects in front of the lens. They are much more. We are present, we are energetic, we are living to this day. We are not just victims of a war, but far more beautiful and powerful in our culture and lifestyle. I hope the photos I share represent that.

The Phoblographer: Is Laotian diaspora still underrepresented in the AAPI community in the USA? As visually creative artists, what more can be done by photographers to help bridge this gap?

Binly: The Lao American Diaspora is still heavily under-represented in the AAPI Community. Lao folks are one of the lowest out of all the Asian American groups to attend and graduate College. It is even lower with Grad School. Lao folks are in the lower bracket when it comes to Household Income out of the many Asian American groups. The Southeast Asian American Community in general have challenges that stem from Refugee resettlement, integration into American society, and being heavily under-resourced since the 1st wave of SEA Immigrants arriving in America. We are lacking in representation in the legislative space, the education space, and the art space.

In the recent decade, a lot more activism, art, and community advocacy grew for the Lao American Community. That is not to say it never happened before this decade; I want to take this time to honor the pioneers in the Lao American Community who have paved the way when it felt nearly impossible to have their voices be heard. In the recent decade though, a Renaissance of some sort kind of blew up in our community. People in spaces ranging from Lao Food, Art, Music, and Community Advocacy grew and became Lao’der. Huge Lao American events like the Lao American Writer’s Summit in Minneapolis, San Diego, and Seattle helped inspire more Lao Youth to address their identity and be prouder in exploring their culture. This led to more Laotian American artist integrating that into their art, unpacking the many layers.

As photographers, the first step is to photograph Laotian American people, events, customs, and document as much as we can. June Jordan, one of my favorite Poets and the original founder of Poetry for the People at UC Berkeley, had an iconic quote that I live by. “Write or be Written”. I do not want my community to be misrepresented, so I must use my skills in all the mediums that I can to share our stories, in our words and our terms. This includes photography. The photographers can learn a lot by integrating themselves in the culture. The last thing I want is for photographers to photograph any culture as if we were animals being highlighted in magazines. There is a level of empathy and compassion that needs to be involved when photographing the beauty and the darkness our community has.

The Phoblographer: How are you using this series to tackle the issues of Asian hate? Have you given it much thought?

Binly: “Secret No More – An Expression of Humanity” is a response to Asian hate. Recall that in times of war, all sides of the conflict use de-humanizing terms to label their enemy. It didn’t matter what war; you can pick up enough terms by looking at the many wars of the past century. The terms “Gook”, “Chink”, and other Asian derogatory terms are used to make the enemy less human, more tolerable to murder. Throughout history, these derogatory terms, harmful depictions of Asians, especially in Western Media, and violence often shows that the racist hate often comes from the lack of education about each other’s histories. It is rooted in racist ideologies that continue to perpetuate across communities. The more we attempt to bury the past atrocities, the more it festers into what we see today. The system also puts vulnerable populations to fight each other just to survive, and with it comes many historical tensions. The pandemic did not help. The AAPI Community is so complex and diverse within itself. We do not all share common languages, customs, religions, etc. We are not a monolithic block, and it’s often forced upon us by the powers that be. However, we do share the unfortunate events of being attacked, murdered, and having our struggles often ignored due to the harmful Model Minority lens.

Although not a direct response to the Asian hate, the project seeks to bring light to the Lao American Community. The project and many others surrounding our community’s work has been a long journey. We have been addressing many community issues for decades. The gallery is another addition to a large effort. Sharing these photos and artwork, it will not appear so foreign to the masses. I want to show us as people with our own identity because we often do feel invisible. I want to show truthful depictions of who we are so that no one can continue to misrepresent us. Especially in America, we are here, we are living alongside everyone else. There are not enough books that write about the Lao American experience, not enough authors or photographers to document. The project addresses the notion of visibility. It is a slower approach and a more difficult one to write and photograph about the community. I do not want to always react to the current events at hand, there is an underlying root cause to the issues that need to be addressed. I do not believe my photos and the art from the artists in the gallery will stop Asian hate from continuing. I do believe we make a difference by highlighting who we are, writing about our struggles, and humanizing our community. I encourage other communities to continue doing this. We can all learn from each other.

The Phoblographer: Poetry and photography leave a lot to interpretation for the reader/viewer. Would you say that your camera provides a medium for a visual extension of your poetry?

Binly: Yes, I believe my cameras provide a medium for a visual extension of my poetry. I invite the integration of the two in my work. It mixes seamlessly. In both of my poetry books, I include photos because there are times when I need to be blatant about what I am talking about. My poems are often concrete. The reader or viewer can continue to interpret my work, but there are poems where I make it clear that I am speaking about certain issues, certain themes. I enjoy the integration, the dance among the written word and photographed image. I will continue to do so moving forward. I acknowledge that I have a lot more to do to continue growing this project. It will be a personal lifelong journey. I must see it to the end.

All images by Binly. Used with permission. Visit the LaoAmerica website for more information about this project, as well as Binly’s Snap Pilots website