Caroline Irby’s book Someone Else’s Mother acknowledges the story of the Filipina woman who raised her

Juning lived with Caroline and her family for 22 years. In this project she attempts to unravel the effects of living without a mother or your children for such a long time.

29 September 2020

Photographer Caroline Irby grew up in London with a Filipina woman called Juning, who had four children of her own living on an island in the Philippines. Juning had previously worked in Manila but made the move to Hong Kong on the hunt for a wage which would cover her children’s school fees, which the local income did not. In 1976, Caroline and her family also moved to Hong Kong, when her dad’s job was transferred and, after Caroline was born, Juning responded to Caroline’s mother’s ad for a “mother’s help”.

When Caroline’s family returned to London, Juning came with them and stayed with the family for 22 years. “Now, as an adult and a mother myself, the notion that Juning lived apart from her children for three decades is painful to imagine,” Caroline writes in the blurb of Someone Else’s Mother, a recently-published book which sees Caroline attempting to tell Juning’s story, acknowledging her sacrifice. Every day, 5,000 Filipinos leave their country in search of work abroad and 70 per cent of those are women. “There isn’t a figure for how many are mothers leaving children behind,” Caroline continues, “but I grew up with and deeply love one of these women, and having always known, obliquely at first, that she had children of her own, I want now to tell Juning’s story, and to bring into focus the lives of the sons and daughter she left.”

Someone Else’s Mother is full of Caroline’s childhood memories of Juning, like her cooking dinner and the pair of them sitting on Juning’s bed and watching TV together in the evenings. Caroline’s brother went to boarding school aged eight and her parents were often out socialising. At 11, Caroline followed her brother to boarding school and, when she was 13, she discovered photography for the first time. “It felt familiar from the start, and I decided pretty immediately that I wanted to be a photographer,” she recalls. “I’d always loved drawing, but the spontaneity of composing through a viewfinder gave me a real buzz, and when my father gave me his old, manual Olympus, it was like giving me a pair of wings!” What’s more, in the context of boarding school, “where life could be pretty full on with no space of your own, the dark room was a haven,” she adds.

GalleryCaroline Irby: Someone Else’s Mother, published by Schilt Publishing (Copyright © Caroline Irby, 2020)


Fishermen, Bantayan Island, 2005. When I started photographing this project, I was looking for the life that Juning had left 30 years earlier.

Caroline’s career progressed quickly after. Aged 18, she undertook an internship with Magnum in Paris, kickstarting a decade-long stint as a photojournalist. She was on the road for seven months a year when she met her husband and, “this carried on for a while, but eventually it wore thin – I wanted to be around more.” Today, Caroline’s practice is a balance of advertising work, magazine portraiture, overseas assignments for the UN and personal work in myriad forms. Someone Else’s Mother is her most personal work to date, however, and it’s a project she’s been working on since 2005.

Reflecting on how her photojournalism roots may have drawn her to reconnect with Juning and make a book about her life, Caroline writes: “I don’t know whether this work, often documenting displacement in the wake of conflict and natural disaster, eventually tuned me into Juning’s own version of displacement, or whether being raised by someone whose life was defined by separation drove my interest in these stories.” Either way, the result is a nuanced and intimate look at one woman’s life through archival imagery scanned directly from Juning’s own photo albums and photographs taken by Caroline on trips to Juning’s island in 2005 and 2018. These are supported by Caroline’s own writings and transcribed interviews between her and Juning.

The imagery in the book employs the photographer’s signature use of natural light and while this is a preferable method of working for her, it also sets the tone and atmosphere for the book. “I like ambiguity in a picture, whether in the composition, the people’s expressions or something else. When a picture is very literal, it doesn’t ask much from the viewer and there’s little engagement,” she tells us. A photographer and good friend, Tim Hetherington, who was sadly killed in Libya ten years ago once told Caroline, when she was in Senegal early on in her career: “Don’t show them how it looks, show them how it feels.” It’s something she keeps front of mind to this day, describing how Someone Else’s Mother is the closest she’s ever come to evoking rather than telling a story.

GalleryCaroline Irby: Someone Else’s Mother, published by Schilt Publishing (Copyright © Caroline Irby, 2020)


Fisherboys, Bantayan Island, 2005. Juning’s father was a fisherman and she used to help him with his work every morning before school.

“In the first part of the book, I was trying to summon in photographs that place that Juning had left decades earlier, and which formed an opaque backdrop to my own childhood,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Many of the pictures in this book look like they were taken in a dream state – I often make photographs like this, but they wouldn’t generally have a place in a commissioned story. Here I think they worked – I could express myself freely because the project was so personal.”

The book finishes with a sincere and knowing passage by Caroline, acknowledging the stark differences in how she and her brother were raised, the lives they went onto have, and how Juning’s own children lived. “The playing field was wildly uneven, and I can’t help feeling that what we gained, Juning’s children lost,” she says. And she also outlines what happened when Juning returned to them and her homeland. “I wish I could write them a happy ending… But 30 years is a long time to spend abroad.” It’s a sentiment expressed through the photographs in the book too, which are beautiful and intimate but tinged with solemnity. They acknowledge the light Juning brought into Caroline’s family’s lives and the children left behind as a result, but they also take into account the legacy of Juning’s sacrifice; between her children, there are university degrees, children of their own, a farm, several homes. “Quietly, Juning has been a vessel for a huge amount of change, and the model of hard work and giving that she has embodied, her children follow.”

Someone Else’s Mother by Caroline Irby is published by Schilt Publishing, available in stores and online for £35.

GalleryCaroline Irby: Someone Else’s Mother, published by Schilt Publishing (Copyright © Caroline Irby, 2020)


In the mid 1980s, Juning bought a chicken farm for her children on Bantayan Island. The farm was one of the few aspects of Juning’s life in the Philippines that I was aware of as a child.


Juning’s grandson, Marloe, at home in Bantayan Island


Juning with old friends, Bantayan Island, 2005


Juning’s sons, (from left to right) Roel, Roly and Roy, on the family farm, Bantayan Island, 2018


New life on the family farm, Bantayan Island, 2018


My daughter Elodie on Juning’s children’s farm, Bantayan Island, 2018


Juning’s oldest son, Roly, with my own children and Jiin, one of two girls who Roly and his wife look after, while the girls’ parents work in South Korea

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Caroline Irby: Someone Else’s Mother, published by Schilt Publishing. Juning in 2005, cleaning the chapel she had recently built on her land. (Copyright © Caroline Irby, 2020)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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