July 20, 2014 00:00 By Philip C Tubeza
Xyza Cruz Bacani, a Filipino domestic worker in Hong Kong, has earned international acclaim for her street stills
On weekdays, domestic worker Xyza Cruz Bacani uses a sturdy, white mop to clean her elderly employer’s flat in between taking care of the latter’s seven grandchildren who visit every day.
But whenever she gets the chance to go out – even if it’s just for a quick trip to the neighbourhood grocery store – Bacani grabs her camera and takes dramatic snapshots of the city’s vibrant street life.
Her stunning black-and-white photos have been featured in the New York Times and used by the Vogue Italia website. For the past three years, Bacani’s work has also been a finalist in a National Geographic magazine’s competition in Hong Kong for best open documentary photo.
She has even been called a modern-day Vivian Maier, the legendary American photographer/nanny.
“I feel naked when I go out and I don’t have my camera with me,” says Bacani, a 27-year-old from Bambang town, Nueva Vizcaya province in Northern Philippines who joined her mother in Hong Kong nine years ago to work as a nanny for the latter’s employer.
“You know, when I’m told to buy something at ParknShop (a supermarket chain), I bring along my camera. It looks stupid but I do it,” she says.
“My favourite pictures are those that I took when I didn’t go out on purpose to do a photo shoot,” she adds.
Despite her humble background – she borrowed money from her employer to buy her first digital camera, and her family was once evicted from their home – Bacani says she has found her passion and intends to pursue it.
“If you really want to be successful in photography, you should turn it into your lifestyle. It should become a part of your daily life like eating or taking a bath,” she says.
Bacani works for a 74-year-old businesswoman who lives in the upscale Mid-Levels district. The businesswoman who has employed her mother, Georgia, for the past 20 years and paid for Bacani to study nursing before joining her mother in domestic service.
Uprooted from her home country, Bacani says photography serves as her “therapy” and her “protection” against racism and discrimination.
“When I go out and shoot, I feel relaxed. It’s just me and my camera. I’m not an OFW (overseas Filipino worker). I’m not a domestic worker. I’m just a girl with a camera. That’s how I feel when I shoot,” she says.
“It’s not that I’m ashamed of being a domestic worker. In fact, I’m proud of my job. But you also can’t deny that there’s discrimination, judgement and stereotyping when you’re an OFW. So, photography for me is a protection against racism and discrimination.”
Bacani now plans to document the plight of her fellow domestic workers and, through her pictures, tell their story.
“I want to make a project about the domestic helpers here and apply for grants and then give [the proceeds] to charity. I want to have a body of work that I know will help others,” she said.
Bacani got hooked on photography after attending photo exhibits in her school.
“I always attended [the exhibits] and was impressed by the photos. I told myself that when I get a job, I’ll buy my own camera,” she said.
Bacani is full of praise for her employer. “In addition to lending me the money for my camera, she never stops helping us. My brother graduated as a seafarer and she’s helping him find work here with a major shipping line.
To sharpen her skills, Bacani reads the advice of expert photographers on the Internet, watches YouTube tutorials, and takes pictures whenever she can even though sometimes it land her in trouble. .
“Street photography is candid and natural. Your subjects don’t pose for you because that would be portraiture,” she explains. “An elderly woman beggar once ran after me with her umbrella because she thought I was taking a picture of her,” she recalls.
Sometimes, people notice she is taking their pictures and they would ask her to delete the shots and she gives in to those requests.
“That’s the time you know that you’ve failed because they aren’t supposed to notice you. You’re supposed to be a fly on the wall,” she explains.
Bacani has also joined the Filipino photographers group Daan on Facebook, and it was there that she met award-winning photographer Rick Rocamora, who has become her mentor.
“He thought that I was just another rich kid who had nothing to do but shoot. He was really surprised when I told him what my job was. He began teaching me, sending me links to read and sets me assignments.
“He told me that what he was doing was an act of kindness, that he hoped I would also do it someday to someone else. It’s like a cycle of kindness that you have to also give to others. That’s what I really like about him,” she added.
It was also Rocamora who led her to her big break after he forwarded her pictures to The New York Times.
After The New York Times did a story on her, Bacani recounts that well-known, Hong Kong-based photographers contacted her, including Jonathan van Smit, who offered to give her two cameras for free after learning that her camera was broken.
Rocamora compares her to Vivian Maier, but Bacani downplays the comparison. Maier was a nanny for 40 years in Chicago whose work on street photography was largely unknown until a collector discovered her pictures in 2007, two years before her death at 83.
“I’m uncomfortable when compared to her because her work is up there, a different level from what I do. She’s already a legend, an icon. I want to create my own name,” she says.
Bacani, who has invested her hard-earned money to buy a farm while her mother has put up a three-storey house and an apartment, now wants to help her fellow domestic workers.
“They should strive to achieve their own personal goals. What I’ve noticed is that OFWs forget themselves and give everything to their family or relatives,” she said.
“They should be heroes first to themselves,” she says.