Ernest and Phaythoune Kuhn Image Collection

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The Ernest and Phaythoune Kuhn Image Collection consists of more than 2000 images taken primarily in northern Laos between 1965 and 1975, during which time Mr. Kuhn worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s refugee program and married Phaythoune, a school teacher from Xieng Khouang. The Collection also includes 170 images from 1963-1965 when Mr. Kuhn was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Ban Maeo Thap Boek, a Hmong village in the Thai government’s “Hill Tribe Settlement” program in Loei Province, Thailand about 20 miles south of the border with Laos.

Covering the last 10 years of U.S. involvement in Laos coincident with the Vietnam War, the Kuhn Collection features a wide range of unique images showing life in a variety of ways, from holidays and religious occasions to, especially, refugee-related activities. Special Laotian highlights taken before the communists took over in late 1975 are of one of the last Hmong New Year’s celebrations in January 1975, in Ban Xon, Vientiane Province (204 images, all titled Hmong New Year), and the final traditional Lao New Year presided over by the King and royal family in April 1975 in Luang Prabang (346 images, titled Lao New Year). The Collection’s subset from Mr. Kuhn’s Peace Corps time in Thailand (170 images, titled Hmong in Thailand) similarly provides a “rare” look at life in a Hmong community during the mid-1960s.

Images of people include the Lao as well as the Hmong, Khmu’, Phuan, and Pong (Phong), in particular. Exclusive of the Hmong and Lao New Year photographs, the Collection generally consists of upcountry images of refugee-related activities from the provinces of Sam Neua (Houaphan), Luang Prabang (Louangphrabang), and Xieng Khouang (Xiangkhoang). Among the latter, the Kuhn Collection incorporates 47 images of Xieng Khouangville recaptured by U.S.-supported Hmong General Vang Pao in 1969 as taken by MacAlan Thompson, a fellow USAID refugee official.

Although the collection is not arranged chronologically, each image is labeled with descriptive metadata that includes when and where it was taken, as well as the location’s known Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinates (see Joint Operations Graphic 1:250,000 scale maps of Laos printed in the 1960s by the Army Map Service, Corps of Engineers, compiled and presented in their current format by Jim Henthorn). Many of the places had crude airstrips carved out of mountainsides that were also known by their respective airfield Lima Site (LS) or Lima (L) numbers (e.g., LS-272, Ban Xon, UTM coordinates TF 5994) which are included in the metadata.

Supplementing the Collection is an extensive interview with Mr. Kuhn, after his USAID career, done by Arthur J. Dommen, an Indochina specialist, as part of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, Foreign Assistance Series. The interview provides significant background, context, and insight to the Collection. Please see, or within a companion SEAiT collection (Indochina War Refugees in Laos, 1954-1975 – Documents and Reports). The latter collection also includes many documents, letters, and reports by Mr. Kuhn.

In recognition of his services, Mr. Kuhn received the Order of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol from the King of Laos in 1968. Ernest and Phaythoune Kuhn presently reside in the Washington, DC area.


Larry Ashmun ( wrote this text and is the Southeast Asian and Hmong Studies Bibliographer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Frederic (Fritz) C. Benson (former USAID/Laos refugee officer) assisted in the preparation and review of the descriptions accompanying the images in conjunction with information provided by Mr. Kuhn.