Behind the Camera: Clary Estes on being “Left Behind” in Jiangxi province

Clary Estes ProfileClary Estes is a photojournalist born and raised in Kentucky, US, and spends a great deal working in Appalachia, East Asia and across the US. Currently, she is a Ishibashi Zaidan Fellow at Nagoya University. She graduated from the Corcoran College of Art and Design. She refers herself as “a collector of experiences”. Her father calls her “The Wonder Luster”.


A few weeks ago, Yosuke Ishizuka had recommended that I speak with Clary Estes. “She documented a funeral and birth all in a month,” he said, and that she had lived with the family in rural Jiangxi province. Clary and I spoke for two hours over Skype – her in Nagoya, me in Shanghai – about her journey as a young photographer, the challenges and rewards of documenting a family’s most intimate moments, and her aspirations to delve deeper into gender issues in China.

SA: Tell us a little about yourself. How does an American photographer from Kentucky end up in rural Jiangxi (江西)?

CE: I ended up in rural Jianxi as a result of my work with an organization called IFChina which is based out of the city of Ji’an. I had worked with them four years ago while I was in China [for] the first time. [S]ince I have moved back to Asia, I have started working with them again. They were holding a summer camp for their volunteers in YingPanXu (营盘圩), a very small village that is the highest altitude village in Jiangxi province, and is close to the border with Handan (邯郸县) [in Hebei province]. I went there to teach IFChina volunteers photojournalism. It was in YingPanXu that I found the Huang (黄) family and decided to continue coming back to shoot.

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SA: You’ve photographed intimate milestones within this family including a funeral and birth. You said to me that you always seek to be open and honest with your subject. How did you gain access to such intimate aspects of the family especially a funeral? Were there no vehement objections on the grounds of privacy and/or superstition?

CE: Ultimately, the family allowed me to photograph and participate in these events out of trust. We showed each other mutual trust, respect and sensitivity and therefore the relationship could happen in the first place.

The first time I ever really shot the family was for the funeral of the patriarch. We had visited the family home once before and met family members at different times but this was the first time I was shooting so intensely and for so long. I was able to photograph this event because I not only showed a great deal of respect and sensitivity to the family and their situation, by bringing offerings and good tidings, but also because the family only knew me as a photographer and as someone who was interested in documenting their lives. It made perfect sense that the only way I could contribute to the funeral was through my photography. In the end, the family did not just give me permission to photograph, they wanted me to photograph.

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SA: In your artist statement, you talk about your work “being a delicate balance between a record of life and a testimony of the human condition.”  A photojournalist’s experience can be shaped by presumptions and circumstances where culture and language are concerned. Do you feel your work accurately reflect the themes you want to convey?  

CE: In a lot of ways this the $64,000 question. How do we keep objectivity, accuracy and heart intact in a story? As far as being objective goes, I try to first understand my relationship to the story, where am I making assumptions, what are my biases, what do I need to learn? etc. I also try to deal with objective issues by immersing myself in my stories. I frequently live with subjects so that I can get a real sense of what their lives are like, rather than just a superficial view.

I have also recently tried giving my subjects cameras so that I can see what life is like through their eyes. I suppose it is moot to say whether or not I think my work is accurate or not, but I will say that I work to photograph as truthfully as possible and improve on my work through exchanges with my subjects, mentors and audiences. Photography and photojournalism is a lifelong process and it is something you will always have to improve upon no matter who you are.

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SA: When you name your project “Left Behind”, one immediately assumes a bilateral relationship between the children and migrant worker parents. But I noticed in the Hakka village you photographed, all three generations are present. So what or who is really left behind here?

CE: Everyone in the series is either someone who is left behind or someone who has left (as migrant workers in the case of the Huang family). The core family I shot is comprised of a grandmother, her son and daughter-in-law and six grandchildren, all of whom have been left behind by their family members in one way or another.

Four of the children are siblings without their fathers in the household, and are instead raised by the grandmother and mother, and the other two cousins are living without either of their parents. In one case, a young boy’s mother ran away altogether because she did not want to live in poverty. I think this impacts children a great deal and I wanted to look into that. What I found is that kids tend to grow up faster and take care of each other much earlier. In the case of the grandmother and her daughter-in-law, their lives are and will be a continuous string of hard work every day, taking care of the children and providing food and income for the family. It is a very hard life they lead.

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SA: We had discussed that the concept of families being left behind is not unique to China. It is common for economic crises and circumstances to force families apart with resulting psychological impact. You previously photographed an emotional and thoughtful essay about a coal mining town in East Kentucky (Appalachia). Are there inherent similarities and differences?

CE: There is a very obvious tie to [the] Appalachia with this [Jiangxi] project. In Appalachia, people my age are typically forced out of the mountains for economic means. Whether or not they actually want to leave, they have to if they have any hope of pursuing the type of work they want. Though I am not originally from Appalachia I understand this sentiment. I was really interested in staying and working in the region but couldn’t because of the lack of opportunities. There is a very thoughtful essay about this issue that a former student of mine did for his undergraduate thesis, which started in a photography workshop I was teaching in Eastern Kentucky. I think it is a good parallel to look at for this question. The biggest question we look for in these types of photo essays is, what is the impact of people and the families when they are forced to leave the place they call home? I am even dealing with this now, being that I live in Japan, very far away from my family in Kentucky.

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SA: Share with us a moment or photo from your “Left Behind” project that has resonated more strongly than others.

CE: I think the moments that resonate with me the most are the ones where I’ve started to assimilate into the family and really feel like I was a part of their life in a personal way. These sentiments were shown in small ways, the grandmother washing my face one morning after I slept on the floor of the hospital with them, family dinners, the way the really young kids always wanted me to hold them, things like that.

As far as the photographic moment that resonated with me the most, let me give you two. The first was very early in the shooting process when I was shooting the funeral. Aside from the family and the ceremonial men, I was the only one in the room where much of the mourning took place for the grandfather, which meant that I was right alongside the family while they were crying over their grandfather’s coffin. I was deeply touched that the family let me in so close and in turn I pushed myself even more to get closer and shoot better. Really, if I had not worked hard as a photographer in this situation it would have been a disrespect to the family and the fact that they were so open. I did not have time or the opportunity to be scared or hesitant because life and death were happening in front of me very fast and I had to honor that by doing the best work that I could. In many ways, this was a milestone in my photographic career and growth.

The second instance was when I did a portrait of the eldest daughter of the family. She has a very rough time and is frequently sad because of the treatment she receives day-to-day. It was this reason that I started to feel very close to her and would frequently spend time with her. I am not very good at portraits but knew that I wanted to take some of the family. The portrait I took of the daughter I think, however, was the most impactful for me. I wanted to show the hope I had for her, her innocence, kindness and potential, as well as the environment that she lived in. Photographically, I think this is a portrait that spoke to the heart of the girl and was honest. It also reflected my relationship with the girl in a way. I see this photo and I feel like she is right there with me.

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SA: Let’s talk a little about equipment. You travel a great deal shooting in various circumstances. What’s the bare bone body and lens you’d settle for a solid story?

CE: My go-to lens right now is the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L. I typically shoot with Canon equipment (not that I am against Nikon or any other brand, I also shoot with Fuji) and the 24-70mm has a wide range and is fast so it covers all the bases I need when I run out of the door at the last minute to shoot a surprise event.

SA:  You shared with me the myriad of projects – stills and video – you’re looking at in the horizon, both in China and on global issues. Can you shed more light?

CE: The future is a terrifying and exciting place for me right now. I am always juggling a million different ideas and possible paths; that has always been my [status] quo. Ultimately, I want to always be traveling. I also really like being in parts of the world that are hidden and unexpected. I have gotten more and more used to being the outsider. I also like being lost in a place and even a little cut off from what makes me comfortable, it forces me to let me guard down and just shoot, which is very healthy for me.

As for projects, I am looking into a number of projects both in China and Japan. The most immediate project I am starting is on maternity wards in Chinese hospitals. In the west, there is little understanding of healthcare practices in China, especially as they relate to women’s health. In rural Chinese areas, this ignorance is even greater. I want to not only shed light on practices in Chinese hospitals but I also want to look at the relationships that can form in these situations.

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