Clary Estes: Left Behind

The Image

Clary Estes

YingPanXu, Jiangxi Provence, Ji’an Prefecture, China

Time / Date:
Mid-Day, September 15th, 2013

The Technical

Camera Body: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 24-70mm f/2.8

Camera Settings:

Shutter Speed: 1/8s
Aperture: f/4
ISO: 1000
Focal Length: 24mm

The Story


This was my first project in China in 4 years and the first project I did after moving to Japan. This project was about ‘Left Behind’ families in Southeast China. ‘Left Behind’ is a term usually a term reserved for children left in rural villages under the care of families, usually elderly grandparents, while their parents work in the city. However, the more I worked in China, the more I realized that only focusing on the children was an over simplification and that the ‘left behind’ issue effects entire family units very deeply. The story exposes life and death experiences and the day-to-day struggles of the Huang family and asks the question: what does it mean to be left behind?

The Scene: 

The Huang family is incredibly poor but very rich in spirit. The first time I shot the family was at the funeral of the family patriarch, who had died suddenly in the night, and that experience created an immediate bond between the family and myself. The thing that strikes me most visually about the story is how the family seems to resemble the landscape they live in. The Huangs live on the side of a mountain and have a beautiful view of the entire village and valley below. The grandmother and daughter-in-law of the Huang family climb a mountain everyday to cut wood, and also farm in the family plot, cook, clean and care for the children as best they can. Their hands are dark, rough and beautiful and their bodies are strong and capable. Every member of the family, from the women, to the young children, reflects the strength of the mountains they live and work in.

Making the Shot:

The day I shot this photo, things were very slow. It was just one of those days I was working to get daily life shots. There was a moment when I was exploring the house and the children where playing in the front room, which was usually unoccupied. I was shooting with my tripod and there was a moment where they all became still in front of the door and turned to look at me with the light streaming in from the mid-day sun behind them. The room was pitch black otherwise. I quickly took a few shots before they got too excited and starting running around again.

Editing & Processing:

There was very little post done on this image. My workflow involves a general run of images through Lightroom, with more focused edits in Photoshop. However, all I really did to this image was tweak the levels slightly and play with saturation a little to bring out some of the lens flare.

Looking Back:

Overall I am happy with the image because, to me, it reflects the conversation I was having with my subjects. I was not a fly on the wall. This project was a conversation between the Huang family and myself. They wanted to tell their story and I wanted to be a vessel they could communicate through.


If there is anything I have learned this last year, it’s that throwing caution to the wind does not necessarily mean pissing in the breeze. Take chances, don’t sweat the small stuff and if you have an idea you are passionate about, just go do it! Of course, I am also taking advice from the greats. Recently, my favorite has been something Carl De Keyzer said, “Give it all you got for at least 5 years and then decide if you got what it takes. Too many great talents give up at the very beginning; the great black hole looming after the comfortable academy or university years is the number one killer of future talent.” It made my day when I first read that!


China inspires me, my subjects inspire me and the potential that photography has for changing lives is what gets me out of be in the morning. I want to see the next image, I want to learn more, I want to be uncomfortable, I want to get the shot and I want to see things I have never seen before. I could talk about the photographers I love and the books that excite my scenes of curiosity, but when it comes down to it, I am photographing because I cannot do anything else. I am excited about the projects in progress and am always in search of the next project, those new people I will meet, the new things I will learn and sharing all of that with others. The world inspires me… It is a pretty interesting place!



About the Photographer

I was born and raised in Central Kentucky and am currently living and working in East Asia as a photojournalist. I received my MA in New Media Photojournalism from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in May of 2013.

Twitter: @claryestes
Instagram: @claryestes

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