Photography and Pop-ups
Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.
— Bruce Lee
  ©  Laurence Kesterson, NBCnews

© Laurence Kesterson, NBCnews

I make one-of-a-kind collapsible artist’s books that combine my photography with pop-up paper engineering.  Pop-up and flap books originally illustrated ideas about astronomy, fortune telling, navigation, anatomy of the body and other scientific principles.  This history prompted me to construct my own books reflecting ideas on how our selves relate to society today. 

In the mid 1990’s, I went to my mother's birthplace in Yunnan Province in Southwest China to teach English.  Literally translating as “South of the Clouds,” Yunnan is China’s most southwestern Province, sharing borders with Tibet, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. With snow-capped mountains to the Northwest, and tropical rainforests to the South, Yunnan is rich in natural resources and has the largest diversity of plant life in China. This diversity extends it its population as well. I taught at the Yunnan Nationalities University in the capital, Kunming. Many people inside China and most people outside are unaware of this cultural richness.  While I am directly unable to help these groups preserve their identity and ways of living, I try and use my skills as an artist to spread knowledge and provide just a brief portrait of their existence. My mother is a member of the black Yi Nuosu tribe; her grandfather was Lung Yun龙云, governor of Yunnan from 1927-1945 and commander-in-chief of the 1st Army Group during WWII. Learning about my Yi ancestry in my mid-twenties inspired me to study photography and begin this work that is still in progress. 

With the help of a 2008 Fulbright fellowship, I returned to Yunnan, specifically to photograph the 25 ethnic minority groups that reside there. 25 of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups reside in Yunnan and comprise less than 9% of the nation’s population, with the Han representing the majority. In 2014, with the help of a Leeway Transformation Award and the Swatch Art Peace Hotel residency in Shanghai, I returned to China to extend my project outside of Yunnan Province.  For 6 months, I traveled between Shanghai and select minority areas in Inner Mongolia, Northwest Xinjiang Province, Hunan, Guangxi, Guizhou and Zhejiang Provinces. 

Traveling through the mountainous Yi landscape, one old Yi man told me, “Although an eagle flies far into the distance, its wings will fold back. For the Yi, the ultimate goal of life is to find the path of your ancestors.” Another Yi man advised me, “Don’t follow the black road, which is madness, dampness, illness and the ghost road. You should follow the white road, which leads you back to your ancestors.” Constructing pop-ups allows me to combine intuitive design and technical acuity with my love of traveling as I try to understand the world around me. With pop-up books I want to eliminate the boundaries between people, book, installation, photography, craft, sculpture....