Lao family performs Baci Soukhouan ceremony for a deceased relative

Defining Documentary Studies as an Academic Discipline

The importance of documentary work came into sharp focus during the 1930s, when the Roosevelt Administration established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), employing photographers, filmmakers, muralists, and other artists to record the social and economic upheaval of the Great Depression. Today, Dorothea Lange's portraits of migrant laborers, Walker Evans's studies of Alabama sharecroppers, and Russell Lee's pictures of Kentucky snake handlers are among thousands of images that are burned indelibly into our national consciousness, defining not only an era, but who we are as a people.

Documentary studies is emerging as a rich fusion of social sciences, journalism, and the arts. As an academic field, it is beginning to be defined by groundbreaking work at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies ( In addition to building a documentary archive, the center presents bimonthly photographic exhibitions and an annual documentary film festival. Duke University offers an impressive curriculum of courses in a wide range of disciplines that either focus on documentary work or are relevant to documentary studies. However, they have yet to establish a documentary studies degree program.

Within the framework of the Interdisciplinary M.A. option offered by the Division of Graduate Studies at CSUF, I created an innovative graduate program in documentary studies. I combined coursework in three documentary media- photography, filmmaking, and creative nonfiction writing- with southeast Asian studies, focusing on Laos. I learned Lao language during two summers at the Southeast Asian Summer Studies Institute (SEASSI) and then traveled to Laos each winter for fieldwork. Two semesters of field ethnography courses in the CSUF Department of Anthropology provided an important theoretical basis for my thesis work. In addition to photographing Hmong village life in Laos, I also made an ethnographic study of sibling roles and relationships in two Lowland Lao families, living with each for a period of several weeks and doing all of the work in Lao language.

Thesis Project:
A Photographic Documentary on Hmong-American Refugee Culture
and its Roots in Northern Laos

In December, 2004 I began photographing the last wave of Hmong refugees as they arrived in Fresno, California from the refugee camp in Wat Tham Krabok, Thailand. Many had already arrived during the preceding six months. I worked with a team of multilingual social workers in partnership with FIRM, a local nonprofit organization that provides a variety of services to refugees. We were advised by Dr. Henry Delcore, professor of Anthropology at California State University, Fresno. A grant from the California Council for the Humanities enabled me to begin my documentary work, focusing on new arrival refugees and the housing issues they faced. In September 2005, additional funding from the James Irvine Foundation enabled me to broaden the scope of the project to look at Hmong-American culture as a whole, including the Hmong families who had come to California during earlier waves of migration. The Irvine grant also made it possible for me to travel to northern Laos and document village life in the Hmong-American homeland.

The subjects I photographed in California include birth celebrations, weddings, funerals, shamanic healing ceremonies, New Year celebrations, farming, food preparation and meals, housing, new refugees arriving at the airport, traditional music and instrument-making, needlecraft, clan meetings, Hmong political activism and protest rallies, Hmong-owned businesses, nightclubs and social life. Subjects photographed in Laos include Hmong village life in different provinces, farming, food preparation and meals, markets and vendors, shamanic ceremonies, funerals, New Year celebrations, the after-effects of American bombing on Hmong villages, and the emerging Hmong middle class in semi-urban settings.

The project will culminate with a major museum exhibition, a photographic book, and a scholarly, web-based digital archive.

Visit the Hmong Project home page