Cara Louwman and Yuen Yee Li – Rooting

Review by Gerhard Clausing

Many of us have several ethnic groups in our heritage, and we all certainly have lots of ancestors, but not all of us are able to trace our background details more than a couple of generations. And when we look in the mirror, do we recognize parts of those who came before us as forming our present appearance, and are we also aware of the inherited features inside ourselves which we treasure?

Cara Louwman and Yuen Yee Li, sisters-in-law living in the Netherlands, have created a fascinating book that engrosses the viewer/reader in multiple dimensions of their individual cultures and background, now joined in one family. A way of getting to know each other becomes a shared delving into details that paint a multi-faceted presentation of words and pictures to appreciate what was before as it is reflected in what is now.

This artist book has a unique format. The pages are open-bound within a wrap-around blind debossed hard cover displaying culturally relevant designs, as shown above. The pages are large and vertical, so when unfolded, the vertical ‘spread’ encompasses an area that is approximately 55 cm (21.5 inches) in height. This allows a generous presentation contrasting and comparing the two sets of cultural heritage with many interesting juxtapositions.

The paper used for the pages is relatively thin, so that the visuals of previous and following pages shine through, especially in strong light, or when the book is held up and turned as the light shines through. This has a mysterious effect that implies interconnectedness and the inevitability of time passing. The large pages are interspersed with mini-pages or flaps that contain little pieces of wisdom or captions and explanations of what is seen above and below. It is difficult to show this effect here, but I have attempted to illustrate it below by presenting the double page with the bird, where the flap also reveals another caption to go with the calligraphy above it. Another example is the double page of the hands playing piano from the notes of an ancestor, with explanations on the flap.

The visuals and words lead us through several generations, from the West and from the East. We see pictures of precious heirlooms, faces of relatives from long ago, old documents and new calligraphy, nicely translated: the past is effectively connected to the present. The presentation has a light touch, even though some of the subjects are at times heavy, delving into struggles and moments of great strife, along with much that the ancestors accomplished. The colors are kept in pastel tones, making the perusal of the book a very pleasant experience. A detailed essay lets us in on the authors’ background and intent.

The melding of cultural experiences is a necessary process to facilitate sharing the human experience. There is much that is similar about what we have been through, even though the particulars may differ. Books like this one are a great facilitator in encouraging love and understanding, rather than stirring up emotional turmoil by concentrating on the vilification of differences. I congratulate the authors for creating such an effective family account in which we as outsiders can also immerse ourselves. You can become quite engrossed in it; there is no beginning and no end to the presentation. Our own contexts and environments may change, but our heritage is a treasure we take with us wherever we may be in time and space, and it is a great tool that facilitates mutual understanding.


Gerhard Clausing is the Associate Editor of the PhotoBook Journal and a photographer and author.


Cara Louwman and Yuen Yee Li – Rooting

Photographer: Cara Louwman (born in De Bilt, lives in Amersfoort, The Netherlands)

Calligrapher:  Yuen Yee Li (born in Hong Kong, lives in The Hague, The Netherlands)

Texts:  Yuen Yee Li and Cara Louwman

Languages:  English, Dutch, Chinese

Self-published; © 2020

Hardback, debossed wrap-around cover; Swiss binding; 408 pages including short interleaves; 22.5 x 28 cm (8.75 x 11 inches); printed and bound in the the Netherlands by Jos Morree Fine Books and Stronkhorst & Fopmawier, respectively. ISBN 978-90-9033-079-2

Photobook Designer:  -SYB- (Sybren Kuiper)


Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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