Oct 06, 2017 09:40 PM

Left-Behind Children Share Their View

When Liangshan, a remote mountainous prefecture in southwestern China, hits the headlines, it’s often for sad tales about its high HIV prevalence, children having to scramble down a cliff face to get to school or orphaned children going to nearby cities to fight in commercial mixed martial arts bouts.

Volunteers who try to help the 5 million people living in the impoverished region — more than half of whom are members of the Yi ethnic minority — with health care or education have come and gone over the years. But how many people know about the real lives of the children of Liangshan? How do these children behave when there are no outsiders around?

Photographer Jiao Dongzi and those volunteering as part of her “We Together” project have held photography classes in several Liangshan schools since 2016, teaching children how to use cameras to document their own lives.

“They may not be able to tell you what they shoot and why they want to take pictures of a certain scene, but they do record what they feel,” Jiao said. “In their photos, I don’t see dirt or tattered clothes, nor sadness, desolation or pain. I see liveliness flowing out of the pictures, free-minded childhoods and happy lives in the mountains.”

One of the students, 14-year-old Hailai Dingding, described the life of her typical Liangshan family like this: “There are eight people in my family: dad, mom, three brothers, two sisters and I. When I went home after school, I asked my dad and mom, what is our house made of? Dad said it is made of earth. He also said we can chop down a tree and make a wooden house. I have a lot of fruit, including cherries, apples, pears and peaches. We also have oxen, horses, pigs, dogs, goats and chickens. Mom lets them eat grass on the mountain slopes.”

Dingding and her younger brother are the luckiest members of their family, as they are the only two who get to go to school.

Some 60 students in grades three through five took the photography classes. After the volunteers left, the cameras were given to the students, who were encouraged to take photos of their families.

The children pointed the cameras at whatever they liked, including their classmates, their brothers and sisters and the livestock they raise. But the photos rarely contain their parents.

Jiao didn’t ask why so few of the children’s photos show their parents. But media reports have revealed that many children in Liangshan are cared for by their grandparents because their parents have left to work in far-away cities. There are also lots of orphans in the prefecture, as many people have died as a consequence of contracting HIV. More than 25,000 people are HIV-positive in Liangshan, accounting for half of Sichuan province’s total number of HIV cases, according to government data as of June 2013.

Jiao said she hopes the pictures show people the brighter side of Liangshan, which has sunshine, smiling faces and bubbly personalities.


A girl blows a bubblegum bubble. Photo: Hailai Xiaoming


“At an end-of-semester exam, the teacher had us sit outside the classroom so that we were far away from each other and had no chance to look at each other’s papers,” writes Qume Shizhe. Photo: Qume Shizhe


“This is my good friend. She has no father or mother, and lives in her uncle’s home. She’s nice, and loves to be photographed,” writes Hailai Xiaoming. Photo: Hailai Xiaoming


“This is my older sister. She’s beautiful. When they saw me holding a camera, she and my other brothers and sisters climbed into a tree and put pear flowers on her head. She loves my picture,” writes Qume Wuzuo. Photo: Qume Wuzuo


“I love playing with my little friends. But sometimes I’m sad, because my dad is not home and nobody helps my mom chop wood. I’m still weak,” writes Qume Erzuo. Photo: Qume Erzuo


“Suqu Moyisha looks through his binoculars. Only one lens still works,” writes Suge Shila. Photo: Suge Shila


A selfie. Photo: Courtesy of We Together


“This is our favorite game. We carry our vehicle to school in the morning, and ride it on our way home,” writes Qume Aying. Photo: Qume Aying


“My brother is 9 years old. He goes to kindergarten with my sister. He was so happy when I photographed him in the field of rapeseed flowers.” Photo: Courtesy of We Together


“This is my family’s calf, my little friend. I often lead him to the hillside to eat grass. I was happy to take a photo of him.” Photo: Courtesy of We Together

Contact reporter Gang Wu (
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