Photography is a lonely art. It speaks to the inward, expressing outward, flashing light and shadow from the mind’s eye from artist to viewer, expressing story, educating and opening the door to inspiration.
For Xyza Cruz Bacani, photography was a way to channel the feelings of loneliness and isolation she felt as a domestic worker in Hong Kong into something positive. But it has also changed her life — moving her from an unknown street photographer to rising star in just a few years.
Her story is quite remarkable.
When she was a child in the Philippines, her mother left to work in Singapore. Xyza was left to care for her younger siblings, with the family only able to see their mother for brief visits every other year. When Xyza was 19, she decided to help pay for her siblings’ education by going abroad, herself, to work as a domestic worker, joining her mother, who was by this time in Hong Kong.
In writing about that period as a domestic worker, Xyza discussed the sense of isolation she felt—and her early photography reflected those deeply held emotions. She wrote about the isolation of the soul, particularly about the time as a domestic servant, feeling that despite her attempts to
belong, she had to face the reality that she lived in Hong Kong in complete isolation—as she wrote, “a mere observer of this place.”
“I was invisible, I know the feeling of being unseen and unheard,” she said. “Those experiences pushed me to keep on doing underreported stories. I was one of them and I was given a privileged position to use photography to magnify their voices and tell their stories.”
On her website, she wrote about one of her projects, “Love and Poetry”: “These moments are always there happening day in and day out and all I have to do is convert my inquisitive eye to a search engine. From Hong Kong, Dubai to New York, I always look for the silence in the street and isolations…”
However, Xyza found that expressing her feelings of isolation to the outside world was a key to her happiness and creativity.
Strengthened by this epiphany, and driven to convey these stories to a larger audience, Xyza drew attention to her photography by the use of social media, especially Facebook. She gained fans around the world, drawn to her appealing, identifiable social documentary photography of the Hong Kong megalopolis. This led to a number of opportunities, including publication of her work in The Straits Times and The New York Times Lens blog, along with numerous awards and invitations to exhibit.
In 2015, Xyza received one of the highest honors for a young photographer: She was picked as a Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice Fellow, enabling her to spend several months in New York City working on a project on modern slavery in which she spent time in a halfway house for survivors.
When asked about how she was able to maintain focus and push forward with this difficult project, she responded: “I began my Modern Slavery project in 2014. That’s what I submitted to Magnum Foundation,” she said. “I spent the time with my subjects in their homes–not shelters and I stayed focused with the help of my mentors.”
The generous help she received during the experience from the teachers she worked with during the development of the project was vital to her growth as a photojournalist. ‘I’m very lucky to be mentored by amazing people who were very generous with their time, knowledge and kindness,” Xyza said.
As her work progressed, she did not lose sight of herself or her past. Instead, it nourished and inspired her to take on new difficult projects as a documentary artist.
When asked whether she looked back at her past as the young woman who went out as street photographer in Hong Kong, Xyza responded: “My past is important. Who I was helps me to understand who I’m today and who I will be in the future. I believe in roots before wings. Remember your roots so you can fly.”
This work enabled her to connect with her subjects, because Xyza shared some of their experiences herself; she could relate to her subjects, making it easier to connect with them.
Her latest project regards runaways in Singapore, one of the most expensive cities of the world and which relies on foreign labor to do everything from service work to dangerous construction jobs. It is a place where thousands of migrant workers are exploited daily, become victims of human trafficking and suffer from emotional and physical abuse. With support from the Pulitzer Center, Xyza is currently presenting the work.
In summing up her experiences and focus regarding her work, Xyza was to the point: “I empathize with the people I photograph because I’m a human being.”
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.