A Digital View of Laos: The Joel M. Halpern Laotian Slide Collection, SEAiT, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Joel M. Halpern* and Larry Ashmun**

*Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
**University of Wisconsin-Madison



Consisting of slightly over 3000 images, the Joel M. Halpern Laotian Slide Collection is a unique portrait of life in Laos. Nearly all of the images were personally taken by Professor Halpern, an anthropologist, in Laos in 1957, 1959, and 1969. He initially went to Laos as a Junior Foreign Service Officer attached to USOM, the U.S. Operations Mission, in January 1957 and stayed until the end of the year. Subsequently supported by the Rand Corporation and a University of California Junior Faculty Fellowship, Prof. Halpern returned to Laos in 1959 to conduct a study of, in particular, the Lao elite. His stays and research resulted in some of the first American academic work on Laos, a French colony from 1893 to 1953, most notably the 22-volume Laos Project Paper series while at UCLA in 1961-2. In 1969, Prof. Halpern was back in Laos as a member of the Mekong Group of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group (SEADAG). Following stints at UCLA, Brandeis University, and Harvard University, Prof. Emeritus Halpern retired in 1992 after teaching 25 years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Digitalization of his extensive, nearly all, slide collection commenced at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in late 2003, with the metadata phase being completed in early 2005. As a part of SEAiT, the Halpern Collection very nicely constitutes the project’s initial component for Laos.

The Halpern Collection provides a very interesting picture of activities and life in Laos, from royal ceremonies to rural scenes, from American aid to “hilltribe” communities. Its most distinctive feature is its extensive focus on Luang Prabang, the (then) royal capital, where Prof. Halpern and his wife, Barbara Kerewsky-Halpern, resided during their 1957 stay, as well as neighboring parts of northern Laos from that year and 1959, as well as Vientiane and vicinity. Among the Luang Prabang and northern Laos highlights are:

(1) Coverage of several royal ceremonies, including the wedding of (then) King Sisavang Vong’s youngest son, Prince Manivong, in 1957;

(2) A rural trip with Prince Phetsarath, the “Uparat”, or Viceroy, in 1957, shortly after he had returned from political exile; and

(3) Numerous images of the region’s various ethnic minority “hilltribe” groups, in particular the Akha, Hmong, Khmu`, Lanten, Lu, Tai Dam, and Yao.

Among the latter grouping, the Collection includes an especially rare set of images from the White Hmong village of Kiu Katiam in Luang Prabang province. The village, about 50 miles south of the city, was home to Father Yves Bertrais, a Frenchman of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, from April 1950 until the end of 1959. In 1952, Father Bertrais was one of three missionary co-founders of the Hmong Romanized.

Popular Alphabet (RPA), the script now most used by the Hmong around the world. Prof. Halpern’s Kiu Katiam images have been most significantly enhanced by the addition of personal information about individuals as well as the village through direct contact with Father Bertrais (working in Thailand at the time, December 2004) and several White Hmong born in Laos who now live in the U.S. (at the same time).