Photo exhibit features East Side Hmong-American experience

courtesy of Bockley Gallery Pao Houa Her, an East Side-raised photographer, has been taking pictures for years that focus on the Hmong-American experience. A never-before-seen set of photos, which focuses on her childhood home near Lake Phalen, will be on display at the East Side Freedom Library Feb. 22 through March 17.

For Pao Houa Her, photography is like writing. 

“The photographs I take, they’re words, they’re sentences, they’re paragraphs, they’re punctuation, they’re pauses,” she says. “I use photography in the same way one uses words to say something, to be critical of something.”

Her’s work centers around the theme of Hmong Americans and their experience here in the U.S. A new set of her photographs will be on display at the East Side Freedom Library in an exhibit called “Fruits of my Mother’s Labor.” It opens with a reception on Feb. 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. 

The exhibit’s photographs focus on Her’s parents and the home she grew up in near Lake Phalen on the East Side.



In a description of the exhibit, Her says, “Their 1960s rambler, one block from Lake Phalen, encapsulates their desire for the American dream. Those ideals were transferred to us, their children. These photographs attempt to speak to those dreams and desire.”

Her was born in Laos in 1980 before her parents moved to St. Paul, where she was raised. She started making pictures in high school and in 2009 got a bachelor’s of fine arts in photography from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2012 she received a master’s of fine arts in photography from the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut. 

The Lake Phalen home is where she first started practicing photography, bringing the evolution of her work full circle. From the place her parents raised their family, her photography expanded to cover the community and beyond. 

“It’s just a really nice way to come back to where all this, where all the photography started,” she says.

Her has displayed work in a number of Twin Cities galleries. She’s also been been awarded a number of grants over the years to support her work, including the 2016-2017 McKnight Foundation Visual Artist Fellowship and the 2013 Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists. She used some of that grant support to travel back to Laos to take photographs. 

This will be the first time this particular set, which was taken mainly between 2016 and 2018, will be on display.

As for picking the East Side Freedom Library, Her says it was a childhood haunt, where she and her dad would often visit together.

“It made sense for me, it was central to me growing up.”


Interpreting the world

Her says she uses her photography as a way to critique the world.

“I think about the work more as an examination, not as much as storytelling,” she says, adding she sees it as almost a type of research. “The photos are the hypothesis.”

Her says she hopes the audience will see themselves in the photographs and that they serve to continue to critique and question the Hmong experience in America, a permeating theme in much of her work. 

“It’s the perspective of wanting the Hmong to be recognized, wanting to have a say, that’s still very much apparent in the work.”

Her’s work will be on display through March 17 at the library, 1105 Greenbrier St., S. Paul; a panel discussion on the exhibit is planned there for March 2. For more information go to


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at

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