Caroline Irby – Someone Else’s Mother

Review by Melanie Chapman •

What is it that constitutes family? Is it a matter of love, or bloodline alone? Is family determined by time spent together, common interests, shared experience? Is family a matter of choosing whom among billions of people on the planet we trust and look out for and want to be with? Can family be all of these definitions and more?

Many of these questions are beautifully explored in Someone Else’s Mother, the tender photobook by Caroline Irby available now from Schilt Publishing. Having been born into a family affluent enough to afford domestic help, Irby and her siblings were raised in London, primarily by their Filipina nanny Juning, to whom they grew quite attached and loved as if she were their second mother. 

Concurrently, seven thousand miles away, Juning’s four young children were growing up without their own mother’s affection, being cared for instead by relatives and kept afloat by the earnings that Juning sent home. Abandoned by her husband when their kids were quite young, Juning like hundreds of thousands of women before her and since, had to make the heartbreaking choice to leave her home village for a bigger city and higher paying work. Thus, began decades of separation from her children as she was hired to play an important role in another family’s hearts and their home.

Poetically painful yet tenderly presented, Someone Else’s Mother, includes snapshots of Juning’s youthful time-off spent with other Filipina domestic workers in London and other images from Irby’s childhood in which one can detect both love and sadness in Juning’s faraway gaze. 

As an adult, with children of her own in tow, Irby went back to Juning’s home village to interview her now fully-grown offspring and gain a deeper understanding of what it was like for them to pass through childhood without the consistent presence of their biological mother. 

The text of those interviews, including with Juning herself, sweetly compliment the images Irby made of her blonde-haired children playing with Juning’s kids and grandkids. There too one can find both beauty and sadness, as Juning’s adult children maintain an emotional distance with their mother though they express appreciation for the sacrifices she made so that they could have an otherwise unaffordable education and in turn provide for the next generations a better life. 

Someone Else’s Mother is a precious book that will move you each time you revisit it. This narrative will likely stir memories of your own childhood and invite you to reflect on those who helped raise you and perhaps consider at what cost.


Melanie Chapman is a Contributing Editor and Southern California photographer


Someone Else’s Mother, Caroline Irby

Photographs and text by Caroline Irby, born in Hong Kong, raised in London, resides in London

Publisher: Schilt Publishing and Gallery, Amsterdam – Copyright 2020. 

Hardcover with cloth cover, stitched binding, 120 Pages, printing by Offizin Scheufele GmbH, Stuggart, ISBN 9789053309407

Book Design: Victor Levie


Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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