Photographs and collage by Colette Fu
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A detail of Colette Fu's Yi Costume Festival Book.
Photographs and collage by Colette Fu

It’s a Photo! It’s a Collage! It’s a Pop-up!

Pop-up photography? 3-D pop-up? It’s tricky coming up with one label to describe the works of art that Colette Fu creates—maybe because so few people do what she does.

Fu uses her photographs and self-taught paper-engineering skills to design, build, and bring to life elaborate pop-up books of minority cultures in southwest China.

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Wa Hair-Swinging Dance: The Wa people regard the wooden drum as a divine tool that has exceptional power and is the symbol of existence and prosperity. Photographs and collage by Colette Fu

Fu, who is of Chinese descent, grew up in New Jersey. She did not know much about her Chinese ancestry until the 1990s, when she spent three years in China’s Yunnan Province teaching English. She loved the culture and was intrigued by the many different minority groups in the region—there are 25 in southwest China alone. Inspired to share the richness of these little-known cultures with the world, she went back to school to study photography, eventually earning an M.F.A.

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Fu opens her pop-up, “Dai Food,” at her exhibit at Georgetown University. The Dai people refer to their land of Xishuangbanna as Bazi, meaning tranquil and beautiful. Their homes are in a lush subtropical area near river basins with exceptionally fertile soil. One of the least known but most flavorful culinary treasures in China, their food is similar to Thai food in that it combines sour, spicy, salty, and sweet flavors, but retains its own distinctive style. Photographs by Marie McGrory

Along the way, Fu had the idea of combining her photographs with the whimsy of pop-up books, “making my photographs more literally dimensional,” she says. Devoting more and more time to learning the engineering by taking the books apart, she returned to Yunnan Province twice more to gather more materials for these works of art.

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Yi Costume Festival Book: The Yi people are known for their bright colors and festivals. They are integrated with China’s majority Han Chinese society but gather frequently to maintain their cultural traditions. Photographs and collage by Colette Fu

“I want to use those photographs to create a collage; hopefully making it three dimensional will make it easier to feel like you’re there. There is also the element of nostalgia, of childhood. I want them to be playful, appealing to kids and adults.”

“I feel an urgency now,” she says. “I want to take pictures before things change and they look like all the rest of the people.” Focusing on a variety of experiences around food, festivals, and folklore, she aims to bring “an anthropological edge” to the pop-ups but claims to be no anthropologist herself. “My experience is very visual, there’s a lot of interpretation,” she says.

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Return to the Land of the Deities: In the religion of the Naxi people, the priests are called dongba. Dongba writing consists of pictographic glyphs that can only be interpreted by a priest. Photographs and collage by Colette Fu

Each pop-up book is one page. Fu is involved in every part of it herself—the photography, design, paper engineering, even the binding of the book’s cover. An average pop-up can take about two to three weeks to design and build.

“I keep saying that I should dumb it down so I can make more things, make them cost less, but I don’t.” Each book is truly a labor of love, and in a way, echoes the hand-hewn traditions she is recreating.

In a time where we can shoot a picture and have it shared with millions of people in a matter of seconds, the time and care Fu puts into building these books makes the photography more special.

“These people have a relationship to nature that we’re losing—to their land, their ancestry. They’ve made their clothing, maybe they only have one set, but the craftsmanship, the symbolism and color that goes into it … yeah.”

It’s funny, you know. The more time I spend with these pop-ups, the more I feel the experience I think Fu is trying to explain. In some ways these pop-ups comprised of dozens of photographs are closer to a memory than a photo. If I were at the Wa Hair-Swinging Dance, for example, I may make a photo that captures a great moment of the dance. But if I were to describe my memory of the experience, it would be that pop-up.

Colette Fu’s pop-up book exhibit, “Return to the Land of Deities,” is on display at Georgetown University until April 12, 2015. More of her work can be seen on her website.