How Xyza Cruz Bacani Went From Migrant Worker To Internationally Acclaimed Photographer
When someone suggested Filipina photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani should publish a book, she laughed. Bacani was already a celebrated photographer in New York, Hong Kong, and Manila, renowned for her searing black-and-white street photography. But, self-deprecatingly and incorrectly, she still saw herself as a novice. Luckily for us all, the person asking was James Estrin, the co-editor of the New York Times Lens section, and he has some sway.
“At first I had doubts because I felt like I was a baby in the industry,” Bacani says. “I had just been working as a photographer for four years and it’s scary to publish a book. But I think it’s also good to doubt yourself.”
Despite her hesitance, Bacani has proved herself wrong and published an extraordinary book that will change the way we see domestic workers. We Are Like Air is a collection of photographs showcasing Bacani’s family and the lives of domestic workers around the world. She chose the name because she believes migrant domestic workers are often treated like air—invisible but essential in cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore. It was launched in Hong Kong in December 2018, and celebrated again at the Ayala Museum in Manila this March.
The book is another milestone in Bacani’s soap opera-like life. Needing to provide for her siblings, she left the Philippines at 19 to join her mother, Georgia Cruz Bacani, in Hong Kong. There, she began working as domestic helper for the same affluent family. What makes their story different from thousands of other families who go through the same ordeal is that Bacani was able to break the cycle and, against all odds, become a photographer.
This is mainly due to Bacani's talent and grit, but their employer, Kathryn Louey, also played an important role. Over the years, Louey became Georgia’s friend and Bacani’s mentor—Bacani still receives a stipend from her, and it was because of a loan from the family that she bought her first camera. This paved the way for the life she has today.
In the book, one of the most memorable photos is of Louey and Georgia eating together at the dining room table, an image that still has the ability to shock in 2019 for how removed it is from the typical employer-domestic worker relationship. “They live together harmoniously; they treat each other with dignity. They treat each other like family,” Bacani says.
Bacani also photographed her own family for the book, which she had never done before. In a particularly moving set of images, she showcased the relationship between her parents, who remained married despite living in two different countries for 26 years. “They are still together, loving each other despite the distance. I highlighted their love because it takes a great man to love and focus on his family even when his wife is away,” she says.
Touching as these episodes are, this book doesn't gloss over the hardship of economic migration. In other chapters, Bacani shows how children react to the departure of their mothers, many of whom are forced to work abroad because they want to give their families a better future.
The money that these children receive from their mothers has given them a chance to go to better schools. But what about their psychological growth?
— Xyza Cruz Bacani
“Imagine these kids growing up without a mother to take care of them because she is busy taking care of other people’s kids," she said. “In the book, there are these letters from children of migrant workers and one thing that ties them together is the resentment they feel towards their mothers. They can’t understand why she has left them behind. The money that these children receive from their mothers has given them a chance to go to better schools. But what about their psychological growth?”
We are Like Air also looks at those who give back to their host countries. “The usual narrative of migration is that migrants are victims of various circumstances, but this book is also a celebration of what they contribute, not just to the Philippines but also in the countries in which they serve,” she says.
Despite being busy with the book’s Manila launch at the time of our interview, Bacani is already hard at work on other projects. Her latest exhibition is a series of images documenting Manila’s Feast of the Black Nazarene, which is one of the most important Catholic events in the country. The photographs she took will be exhibited at Art Fair Tokyo in March.
During the feast, she had witnessed countless sick devotees praying at the Nazarene for a miracle. Bacani spoke with awe and respect about watching thousands of devotees risk their lives just so they could touch the statue, which is a depiction of the Christ.
“If Filipinos can unite that way, we could be so powerful,” she says, almost wistfully.
Events such as these have convinced Bacani to live full-time in Asia, where, despite all the success she has enjoyed in New York, she sees her future. Hong Kong will be lucky enough to have her for the next few years, as the pull of her mother, and mentors such as Louey, remains strong. Although one look at her extraordinary book shows that her heart will forever lie in the Philippines.