Clary Estes is a photojournalist from Kentucky, USA. Her work does not merely document a story straight on; rather, it analyses and re-analyses the story over the course of months and years to show the dynamic and complex nature of the stories we live. Clary graduated with a Masters Degree in New Media Photojournalism from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in 2013 she moved to Japan as an Ishibashi Zaidan Photography Research Fellow with Nagoya University for two years. She is now living and working in rural Moldova with the Peace Corps. As a storyteller, Estes’ interests lie in long-term documentary projects focused on underserved, obscure communities. Her work My Diaspora is an attempt to understand her life split in two, the life she lives now and the memories that still feel so real to her.
How did you get into photography and how would you describe your work?
My interest in photography began when I was young, but didn’t really take form until I went to college. I remember the first time I picked up a camera was around the age of 12 when my family and I were at a horse race and my mother gave me a camera to stave off boredom. Something clicked that day and I always had the idea of becoming a photographer in the back of my mind. Once I got to college I picked up photography again to cope with the many physics classes I was taking and used it as a creative outlet to address the stress of school. Long story short, I made the slow switch from physics to photography. As I work now I definitely have noticed a few recurring themes. I tend to work with people who are never asked their story, but have an incredibly interesting story to tell. This has me going to VERY rural places all over the world. I also end up working with many elderly people and as a result I have photographed death quite a bit. I even had a friend jokingly say that I was “quite the death photographer” recently and I can’t say he is wrong. This can be extremely hard at times. Watching friends die is never easy.
You mention that your work My Diaspora has been a coping mechanism for your first time living abroad. Where were you moving to and what were the difficulties that you were facing?
My Diaspora came about at the beginning and end of my time in Japan. I lived in Japan for 2-years on a fellowship that allowed me to independently work on projects. I started working on My Diaspora because I noticed that my mind always seems to be stuck half-way in another country. I would have moments where the memory of my life and experiences before coming to Japan were just as strong as the new experiences I was having. This is a phenomenon that has continued throughout my life. I typically move a great deal from place to place; every two years I seem to be somewhere new, thus, I am constantly balancing understanding what I had just gone through with new experiences coming in. It can be very discombobulating at times.
There can be something playful but also uncanny about your technique in the images. Can you talk us through how and why you decided on the layering and what it signifies?
The layering of images is my attempt to convey memories that feel very alive within my body. I would pose for a photo in Japan and then take images that I had made while still at home in Kentucky and overlay them onto my body. This is at least how I started the project. The photos in Japan were always in black and white, while the images from Kentucky were always in color. I was trying to show the voracity of my memories by damping down any image made in Japan – like the memory was more real than the life I was living. However, once I picked the project back up at the end of my stay in Japan I started putting overlaid Japan images and myself in the color images I had made in Kentucky, effectively flipping the narrative. For consistency I kept images from Japan in black and white. Now the memories and experiences in Japan felt more real than those in Kentucky. I started feeling more at home in Japan than in my home town.
You’re often on the road and traveling — what does photography provide you with when you’re far away from familiarity?
I travel because I am a photographer so the reason for living in all these different places is to work on a new project. I use photography to explore the places I am in and to understand them better. Photography is my excuse to constantly be a student.
I imagine the work looks very different in print than on screen due to its 3D feel. Have you exhibited the work, or are you planning on showing it soon?
I have exhibited this project a bit here and there. I typically work in documentary photography and this project is obviously a bit more fine art so I am working with a different audience for it. This is one of the reasons I have only shown it a bit here and there, navigating the two worlds can be a bit overwhelming.
Is there a particular image that is a favourite? Can you talk us through why?
I like the lead image where I am curled up in a ball on the bed with my hand fading out of the overlaid image of my head. It is not the most popular image, but I like it. It is a bit confusing and unclear and maybe even a little uncomfortable, all things that I enjoy as a photographer.
What do you hope viewers take from the work?
I am not sure really. This project was so personal that I have a hard time seeing it objectively. I even have the feeling that the project is not really that good at times. I suppose I hope to try and show a vulnerable side of my self to viewers and maybe they will see a bit of themselves in the project as well.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a project called Those Who Remain about former deportees from Moldova. It is a huge project and has been very tumultuous lately but it is extremely important and I feel very strongly that it needs to be told. For my info, you can go here.