She was eight when her mother, Georgia, left her, to take care of her two siblings in their village in Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines. At 19, Xyza Cruz Bacani joined her mother in Hong Kong as a domestic worker and learned what Georgia went through — from being trafficked to Singapore, to escaping the rathole to work as a domestic help at a benevolent employer’s house in Hong Kong. She realised that the “loss” she grew up with wasn’t hers alone.
At the recent 10th Mountain Echoes literature festival in Thimphu, the photographer read out an excerpt from her book We Are Like Air, released last year, that captures — in photographs and words — the stories of eight foreign domestic workers, including her mother’s.
The 32-year-old recalled how the challenge was to write “her own story”. “I kept crying because it reminded me of the trauma that my family and I have been through,” she says. Finishing the book, she says, was “cathartic”. She didn’t want to open her family to the “cruel, unkind world”. “Vulnerabilities are hardest for visual artists,” says the domestic worker-turned-street photographer-turned-social documenter.
In 2009, spurned by her mother, who said, cameras are only for rich people, a determined Bacani turned to their employer and borrowed money against three months of her salary to photograph on the streets of Hong Kong. “My book is named We Are Like Air because migrant workers are like air. They are important, a necessity, but often unseen, just like air,” says Bacani.
The restive energy of her black-and-white photographs — that have the subjects go about their chores — jumps at the viewers. Her photographic style is reminiscent of past photographers Dorothea Lange, Vivian Maier and John Moore, “The first two are dead, I’m still alive,” she guffaws, before gathering her wits to say, “I tell the younger generation to look up to works of those before them. These people have wonderful experiences you can learn from. They paved the way for me.”
The New York Times discovered Bacani before the Magnum Foundation, which, in 2015, awarded her the Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship to New York University for her photos of abused Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. “They did a profile on me (in 2014) because a photojournalist saw my works on Facebook and sent it to them,” says the Pulitzer Centre grantee.
Migration tore her family apart but it also brought them together. “Survival was my way of dealing with the world. I’m on both sides of the spectrum — a child who was left behind as well as a migrant worker,” she says, adding, “I get tired of the narrative of our story, it’s always about tragedy, abuse and distress. These women are champions, on both sides of the migration divide, supporting their families back home while taking care of another family, allowing them to achieve their dream. We need to celebrate them as champions,” she says.
Pointing at a photograph where she has zoomed in to capture a help’s golden-sandal-strapped feet, out on the streets on her off day — with a group of other helps going to Church in the backdrop — Bacani says, “A domestic worker is her cracked feet and also her shiny sandals.” She has other stories to tell — for instance, once she had to hike to capture (for an international publication) migrant domestic workers running a marathon. While women from Indonesia and Philippines are sought after as domestic help, she also spotted Indian helps in Hong Kong, who accompany families who settle there. They wear “tonnes of gold,” says the bemused chronicler.
Speaking about the “substantial” remittances that Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) send back home, the Filipina says, “Unfortunately, in my country, we don’t export any ‘thing’, we only export people. The government has a labour export policy. Monthly, millions of dollars are arriving in my country from these remittances, and it’s quite sad because a country that encourages its people to leave is a broken country. If children are growing up without the love, care and guidance of a mother, what kind of country are you running?”
Despite rights and systematised minimum wages, the photographer says, “Hong Kong is a city that cannot survive without migrant domestic workers who are cheap, given HK$4,520 per month and a food allowance. Many sleep in bathrooms, kitchens and balconies.” Having worked at the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge in Hong Kong, she felt “anger” every time she heard womens’ stories of abuse. Hong Kong is on the Tier 2 list in the US State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons report 2019, like India.
While Bacani has received recognition for chronicling the subject of migrant domestic workers and putting the issues of OFWs on the world map, the photographer has also been working on issues such as climate change and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, which she refrains from commenting on. “I’m just there to document,” she says. To the world, she has only one thing to say: “Who I was is the reason for who I am now and who I will be in the future.”