Intentionally, this exhibit divides into worlds Before and After. The photographs from Laos were taken before the lndochina War of the 1960's. American military served in Southeast Asia in what most of us now see, in retrospect, as a misconceived imperial venture inserted within a series of lndochinese civil wars. lt brought great tragedy to all concerned' ln documenting everyday life in Laos as it used to be, we provide a frame of reference, a traditional perspective for viewing life in that far away world. ln taking this viewpoint we do not gloss over the tragedies of past wars and continuing conflicts. We acknowledge the common humanity of all participants in these struggles and grieve for those who perished in the fighting. This includes the Americans who represented our own distant land and the numberless peoples of lndochina who died and continue to die in their nations' ongoing struggles for political patrimony.
As a counterpoint to Laos before the war, the After photos from New England are of new Americans. They came here after fleeing Laos and enduring the sorrowful experience of refugee camps in Thailand. Then they sustained arduous initial stages of resettlement in the United States. Flight from the war ravished homeland to a peaceful United States repeats the experiences of many ethnic groups who came to America in previous generations and who continue to arrive today. The After photographs depict the parallel process of integration into American life and the simultaneous maintainance of valued traditions on the part of one of New England's newest ethnic groups.
For the generation of Laotian peoples now coming of age in America, Laos of the 1950's and even the '1960's was grandparents and parents time, not theirs. The world depicted in the photographs from Laos touches on the life of the King and court at that time, showing an overwhelming presence in the royal capital of Luang Prabang (the palace of the Great Prabang, statue of Buddha). That way of life is now a memory culture for the current inhabitants of Laos, just as it is for the people of Laos who have come to make new homes in America.
Our selection of photographs highlights the bright and happy, but in the process reveals glimpses of less than luminous aspects of life in the past and in the present. ln our visual essay we have deliberately excluded the war and the processes of resettlement. We do this not only because these matters have been dealt with elsewhere but because, by showing the Laos of Before, we establish a baseline against which to portray part of the process of becoming American. lt is also our desire to portray, in part, the rich heritage people from Laos have brought with them to America. For many, the long journey to America has involved the tragedies of family separation. For all Laotians there has been the breaking of ties with a way of life and a natural setting very different from New England. ln sharing their present lives visually, Laotian people ln New England indicate on ongoing consciousness of the traumas of the immediate past and a pride in their heritage.
For most viewers the pictures from Laos are exotic. This perspective is heightened by the fact that they are thematically removed from what was, even then, an expanding American presence in that part of the world. ln this sense they are also distanced from most of the recent documentaries about lndochina which have focused on the war, the American presence and on the refugee experience. We invite viewers to penetrate beyond the veneer of people as exotic scenery. The pictures depict ordinary secular and ritual life as well as aspects of the yearly cycle of ceremonial activities. The captions are for those who wish explanatrons in this journey of discovery.