Photographer Ryan Stopera poses at Public Functionary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 18, 2022.
Photographer Ryan Stopera poses at Public Functionary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 18, 2022. Photographs from his new book, "Paper Son," are depicted in the background. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Minneapolis photographer Ryan Stopera struggled with his identity growing up as a mixed-race Chinese American, and didn’t feel a sense of community.

“It’s an isolating kind of feeling,” said Stopera, who’s also a filmmaker, writer, and educator.

Now, the 38-year-old is releasing his third artist book, “Paper Son,” in hopes of expanding inclusion in the Asian American community. The book examines Asian American identity and masculinity, and interrogates how Asian Americans are impacted by media representation.

“Paper Son” debuts Wednesday afternoon with a book sale and author talk at Public Functionary in the Northrup King Building at 1500 Jackson St. N.E. Studio 144, Minneapolis.

The book is a collection of film photography and interviews with 16 Asian Americans. It examines what it means to be a man today, toxic masculinity,  non-binary identities, and other issues.

Stopera felt inspired to let each person tell their own story and share their own perspective on identity instead of trying to sum it up himself.

“What came out of it was a lot of layers, a lot of questions, and no single answer,” said Stopera. “I really appreciated it, because it emphasized that we all exist in multitudes and aren’t one particular thing.”

‘Masculinity comes in different shapes, sizes, colors’

Stopera grew up in Columbia Heights, a north metro suburb that lacked a Chinese community, which affected his sense of identity. His mother’s side of the family is Chinese. 

“Growing up, my mom’s side of the family was on the other side of the world. That was a disconnect,” Stopera said. “The Chinese-ness in me was from my mother and my sister, our home, and what we celebrated there. As far as being surrounded by an Asian community, I didn’t have that.”

Before he found photography, Stopera worked as a social worker for people dealing with drug abuse. Stopera began taking documentary photographs as well as participating in community organizing. He eventually found himself documenting protests through pictures, which compelled him to become a full-time photographer and filmmaker. 

Stopera said that in Asian American culture, masculinity is often portrayed as a stoic attitude combined with physical strength. He believes masculinity is more complex than that.

“It’s embracing femininity. It’s embracing that you don’t always have to be strong,” Stopera said. “You don’t always have to fight. In fact, it can mean to be quiet. It can mean to be sensitive, to challenge things, both with your voice and by listening.

“Some folks wanted to really embrace queerness, fluidity, and gender. Some wanted to show strength, maybe a bit more traditional aspects of what we might view as masculinity. Some folks just wanted it to maybe be a bit more ambiguous and just have them as a portrait in front of the lens as who they are.”

Cam Yang, 28, is a transgender and non-binary grant writer and community leader who appears in the book. In their photographs, Yang wore both masculine and feminine traditional Hmong clothing.

“Masculinity is also very queer and trans,” said Yang. “Masculinity comes in different shapes, sizes, colors.” 

Stopera said that the media young Asian Americans consume strongly affect how they perceive masculinity.

“Growing up, what I was often told by what I saw in media and by what other men around me told me was, ‘Bury the way you feel.’ It was to drink a lot of alcohol, it was to fight physically instead of work through things with your words or emotions,” Stopera said.

Mike Hoyt, 52, a fellow creator and Stopera’s colleague, appeared in the book because he believes it helps tell an important story.

“I think people will hopefully take away his beauty and his craft as a photographer, and that we’re not a monolithic group of people,” said Hoyt. “We have really unique and differing experiences. Some of those might be a generational, some might be ethnic-specific differences.”

Stopera used the color red as a visual throughline to connect the subjects in his book. 

“It’s visually synonymous with a lot of Asian cultures—flags, etcetera,” he said. “And so there’s a consistency aesthetically in the book through that and it ties into the cultural theme.”

Despite stereotypes surrounding masculinity, Stopera said he is seeing shifts with the perception of Asian men, and believes that things are improving.

“I could never have imagined seeing what I’m seeing now and the complexity of characters,” he said.

Stopera credits media like the 2021 Marvel movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and famed martial artist and actor Bruce Lee for exemplifying what it means to be a positive role model for Asian men.

“There’s more of a sense of pride in being an Asian American man today than there has been in the past, which is cool,” Stopera said. 

How to attend the “Paper Son” book launch and talk:

What: Ryan Stopera’s artist book, “Paper Son,” will be available for purchase.

Stopera and Pete K. Wong, a community leader and member of the Coalition of Asian-American Leaders, will facilitate a community conversation with attendees about Asian American identity, masculinity, and media representation.

Books and zines from Annette Bryant, Ateliermamako, Banana Leaf Collective, Leslie Barlow, Mike Hoyt, Rich Lee, Shana Kaplow, and Tyler James will also be available for purchase.

The event will also include vendors, food, and music.

Where: Public Functionary in the Northrup King Building at 1500 Jackson St. N.E., Studio 144, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

When: Wednesday, November 23.

Author Ryan Stopera will give a talk from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. The event will also feature vendors, food, and music from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Nikhil Kumaran is a student at The University of Minnesota. He is studying journalism and political science.