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. 
Growing up (in New Jersey), tired of being Chinese, I peroxided my hair and went through one supersaver bottle of Aquanet Extra Hold a week and tried to alter appearance and my identity. I wondered why other Asian girls were so much more petite, paler-skinned and straight haired.  After college graduation, 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.  While in Yunnan I discovered that my great-grandfather had not only helped establish the university where I was teaching, but was a member of the powerful black Yi tribe, and governor and general of Yunnan during the transitional years of WWII. I stayed in Yunnan for three years; it was these experiences that helped me find a new sense of pride and identity and encouraged me to pursue a profession as a photographer and artist.

With the help of a Fulbright fellowship, I traveled once again to Yunnan, specifically to photograph for a pop-up book of the twenty-five ethnic minority groups that reside there. 25 of the 55 minority tribes of China reside in Yunnan and comprise less than 9% of the nation’s population, with the Han representing the majority. 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 can use my skills as an artist to spread knowledge and provide just a brief portrait of their existence.  As I grow older I start to understand the importance of preserving one’s identity and culture, and the significance of learning one’s roots.

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. I spent this half of the year photographing the minority areas with the goal of making pop-up spreads when I returned back to the US.

My pop-ups are a way for me to speak and inform; the real and implied motion in the pop-ups link to a temporal element and an inevitable corollary is to awe and unsettle. 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....