Colette Fu makes pop-up photo books that examine the self through photos of others

Colette Fu was a pretty typical teenager growing up in New Jersey: insecure about her looks and her identity, as so many teenagers are, Fu would peroxide her hair to alter her appearance. She was tired of being – and looking – Chinese, an ethnic identity her adolescent self wasn’t particularly proud of or attached to. She certainly didn’t identify with it, and didn’t care to.

She also didn’t have any plans on traveling to China to connect with her ethnic identity, and she certainly had no intention of making that the cornerstone of her career and artistic practice. At the time, she wasn’t even an artist. She was an undergraduate student, and, by her own admission, not a very good one.

“I was a really bad student,” Fu laughs. “I didn’t want to be in school, but I didn’t know where else to be.”

Right after graduation Fu’s mother found a trip she could go on with American Taiwanese students to tour major cities in China. While she was touring the capital of the Yunnan Province, where her mother was born, she visited a college for minority nationalities of that province, Yunnan Nationalities University. She then discovered that her great grandfather had been a member of the ethnic minority Black Yi tribe, governor of the Yunnan Province for nearly 20 years, Commander-in-Chief of the 1st Army Group during the transitional years of WWII, and helped start Yunnan Nationalities University. Fu’s family was an important one in that community, and so Fu was invited to teach English at the school.

Again, another thing she had no previous thought of doing.

“I was working as a waitress and at jewelry store, and was thinking, ‘Wow, you want me to be a university professor? And also you’re going to pay for everything?’ I thought it would be like a cleanse. I was feeling really out of control. I thought going to China was a chance to start over. It wasn’t about wanting to find my Chinese self; it was a sense of adventure and being able to start over with an incredible job, as far away as I could be from my family but subconsciously closer to them in a way.”

While working in Yunnan as a teacher, Fu started traveling within the province. Her sister gave Fu her camera and she started taking pictures of the people she saw during her travels, in part just to show her family back home. When a friend commented that her photos were good and she could potentially make a living as a photographer, Fu found herself on a whole new path.

After three years in China, Fu moved back to America to study photography at the Virginia Commonwealth University, then went to New York where she earned her MFA in fine art photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She relocated to Philadelphia and did a series of artist residencies, where she learned to make pop-up books after randomly stumbling across some in the children’s section of a bookstore where they caught her attention (and imagination).

She started making pop-up books in 2003, using her own photography as the basis for the books.

“Pop-ups are fun and magical,” she says. “They appeal to all ages. Kids get excited of course, but adults also get excited. I thought it was an interesting way to reveal something you want to say. It’s really easy to catch someone’s attention with them, then get them to maybe try to look deeper to see what it’s really trying to say.”

In 2008 Fu received a Fulbright Scholarship to return to China based on a proposal for a photographic pop-up book of minorities of the Yunnan Province, We Are Tiger Dragon People. “I originally wanted to make a publication but I didn’t think about how I was going to publish it or who was going to read it or any of that,” she says. “I went on all these portfolio reviews and they said, ‘It’s interesting but it’s too niche.'”

But the Fulbright gave her the self-confidence she needed to pursue her project and return to China, something she wasn’t even consciously aware she wanted to do.

“I guess I never really admitted to myself that it was meaningful,” says Fu. “Everyone was always like, ‘Why are you going back to China? What are you doing with your life? You won’t make money or get famous.’ But getting recognition for the work that I made gave me some sort of self-confidence to admit to myself that it was important.”

She explains that her work is not so much a project about the lives of minority people in Yunnan but really about her own perspective of what she sees that’s so fascinating about them, not having known anything about their cultures previously. The photos and pop-up books are, in a way, an exploration of the self through the images of others. She has been accused of National Geographic tourist-style exploitative pictures of minority people, a criticism she struggled with for a long time.

“I’m not really showing the ‘real’ culture. I’m just showing this positive, celebratory, pretty side. There are parts of their lives that I miss. For some reason I didn’t want to show that other side,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t doing anything but creating pretty pictures.”

When applications opened for the 2013 Leeway Transformation Award, a grant for Philadelphia artists who create social change, a friend urged her to apply.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you apply? Your project is about social change.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I never thought of it that way. So I went to support sessions for the grant and sometimes would end up in tears, like, whoa, there’s something deep there that’s making me cry. Getting support from something like that helped me take myself seriously.”

Fu has done photographic pop-ups with a disaster research center showing the victims of nuclear fallout in Japan, juxtaposing the two distinct Japanese concepts of “safety” – safety of the body and safety of the heart.

She also did a community residency with the Asian Arts Initiative’s Social Practice Lab in partnership with the Sunday Rescue Breakfast Mission, a Christian-based homeless shelter in Philadelphia’s Chinatown North, working with a group of men called the Overcomers, an intensive program that serves men committed to making positive life changes with the goal of returning them to the community as self-sufficient individuals.

The project was to create Chinese zodiac pop-up cards with photographs the men took in Chinatown North and stories they wrote themselves that expressed the good or bad things relating to their Chinese zodiac signs. The goal of this residency was to bring visibility to Chinatown North and to the men in the program by having them examine their own inner selves through their Chinese zodiac identities.

“That was one ‘ah-ha’ moment for me, that this was also a kind of art therapy,” she observes. She mentions that she once considered becoming an art therapist herself. “All of these things give you validity as an artist. That was one of the first times that I felt that I can use what I know how to do artistically with people from the community who want to do something for themselves or for their community.”

Though she speaks very humbly, Fu’s artist’s CV is extensive. She has been the recipient of numerous awards, recognitions, and grants; has shown in numerous exhibitions with pieces in numerous public collections; has led numerous workshops and speaking engagements; and has worked in the role of educator and de facto art therapist for numerous institutions throughout Philadelphia, the country, and the world. Fu is currently documenting minority tribes in India, her first time doing this work outside of China.

Cover photo: Chris Crisman Photography