Soul Calling: A Photographic Journey through the Hmong Diaspora

Hardcover, 264 pages, 11x9, English
Over 175 full color photos
by Joel Pickford
ISBN: 978-1-59714-168-0

An intimate look into the world of the Hmong

The result of five years of courageous and heartfelt commitment, Soul Calling opens our eyes to the beauty, resilience and daily lives of the Hmong people, so recently displaced from their traditional homeland by the traumas of the Vietnam War.

From the rice harvests and funerals of remote Hmong villages in the mountains of Laos to the shamanic ceremonies and overflowing apartment-complex vegetable gardens of Hmong Americans living in Fresno, writer and photographer Joel Pickford leads us into a world of deep-rooted custom and the harsh realities of cultural adaptation. His exquisite photographs and intimate stories take us into living rooms and through the memories of a remarkable people.

Advance Praise

“If this book just had one of joel Pickford’s dreamy yet stark photos—let us say the one where the Fresno family mourns the death of the grandfather dressed in his military suit—and just one story—say, the one where Yer Lor Lee, shaman woman, remembers her childhood in Laos and how she could tell if the burning-down bomb was far or near by its long whistling wail—I would kneel down and kiss this book. If there is a new America, here it is.”

—Juan Felipe Herrera, Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair, University of California, Riverside


“Rarely have the inner and outer lives of a new American population been so starkly yet beautifully revealed. Soul Calling takes us into the world of the Hmong, their painful escape from their Southeast Asian homeland, and their difficult journey to the United States, traveling across space as well as time, then entering America and the twentieth century. This is an extraordinary book.”

—Gerald Haslam, historian and author of Haslam’s Valley


“Joel Pickford’s Soul Calling is a meticulous, penetrating, and heartfelt photodocumentary of the first order.

—Bill Kennedy, professor of photocommunications at St. Edward’s University and author of The Photographer’s Guide to the Digital Darkroom


“Every coming to America is an act of defiance. But as Joel Pickford tells us—shows us—in this remarkable book, no journey to America quite matches the Hmong journey for sheer stubbornness. From the highlands of Laos they came, slash-and-burn farmers with no written language who would not easily give up their ways. From the 'stealing' of young brides to the sacrificing of animals to the growing of backyard opium, the Hmong have, indeed, perplexed us. With pen and lens, deftly tracing that headstrong journey, Pickford now shows us what is harder to see: that the Hmong, by clinging so obstinately to their past, have given us our own past.”

—Mark Arax, author of West of the West and The King of California


Soul Callingis a seminal and luminous work that compassionately documents the Hmong American experience in the Dorothea Lange tradition. Pickford’s imagery is as lush as his prose, and his insights are deeply personal and thoroughly researched. I found myself fully immersed in fascination and delight.”

—Cindy Wathen, coauthor of Remembering Cesar: The Legacy of Cesar Chavez


“Joel Pickford’s photographs eloquently capture the story of the Hmong people as they struggle to make the transition from one culture to another. His images are moving and powerful, opening a window into a world few outsiders have ever seen. Reading Joel’s first-hand account of his journey is also a very moving experience. Wonderful!”

—Cara Weston, photographer and co-author of Head in the Clouds


“A spellbinding combination of photographs and text provide a fascinating account of Hmong life in Laos, the long and difficult journey to America, and the challenging resettlement of a group of recent refugees. Pickford’s ability with both words and images is inspiring.”

—Elizabeth Partridge, author of Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange


“‘Fleeing the tiger to meet the lion,’ the Hmong have become our neighbors. Joel Pickford takes us on a keenly observed, compassionate, and beautifully depicted five-year and eight-thousand-mile journey through the experiences of this diaspora people. By traveling from the new Hmong homeland in the Central Valley of California back to their American-bombed homeland of Laos, where some Hmong still live, Pickford allows us to see through gorgeous photos and words how so many souls might find themselves dislocated yet also called into a newly named and hopeful future in the United States. East-West encounters bristle on every page, as the artist meets his Hmong muse, Hmong musicians heal, and Hmong poets remember their history, much as ancient Greeks once did. This volume makes a substantial contribution not only as a work of art but also as an original piece of remarkably well-written—sometimes heartbreaking, other times humorous—scholarship in the field of diaspora studies.”

—Honora Howell Chapman, coeditor of A Companion to Josephus in His World


“Joel Pickford’s photographer’s eye and poet’s ear are exquisite. Through stunning pictures and evocative essays he traces his personal encounters with one of America’s most recent immigrant groups, the Hmong. Pickford recreates his experience of their world with intelligence, humor, and fine sensitivity.”

—Lillian Faderman, author of I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience


“Joel Pickford creates as many remarkable, lucid images with his prose as he does with his lens. He has achieved something rare in documentary photography, removing the perception of his own presence from the frame. And by so doing, he has become a compassionate and egalitarian witness to the previously invisible life of the Hmong.”

—Christofer C. Dierdorff, portrait photographer, filmmaker, and director of The Tapestry of Life

About the Author and Photographer

Joel Pickford is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and author born and raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley. His work can be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Portland Art Museum, the Fresno Art Museum, and the Weston Gallery, among other collections. His documentary films have been broadcast on PBS stations throughout the country. In 2005, Joel received grants from the California Council for the Humanities and the James Irvine Foundation to document the Hmong refugee culture of Central California and Northern Laos. He holds an interdisciplinary master’s degree in Documentary Studies and Southeast Asian Studies at California State University, Fresno. His scholarly research also includes ethnographic fieldwork on the Laotian language and culture.