Xyza Cruz Bacani: 'When a person tells you her story, it means she wants to be heard'

The domestic worker turned documentary photographer talks art as activism

One of the most interesting exhibits to pop up in the hutongs this year has been The Outlier, a solo show for Filipina documentary photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani that opened last month.

Bacani grew up in Bambang, a city of 47,000 in the Philippines province of Nueva Vizcaya. After studying nursing, Bacani moved to Hong Kong at age 19 to join her mother as a domestic worker in the household of an Australian-Chinese businesswoman. In her free time, Bacani developed an interest in street photography, developing a striking visual style and documenting subjects close to her day-to-day life: the stories of migrant workers and other marginalised or persecuted members of Hong Kong society.

Her work has since gained international recognition, being published by the New York Times Lens Blog, CNN, and others. Last year, Bacani received the prestigious Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship, enabling her to study photography formally at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. Since then, she’s been honoured by her home country with a resolution in the Philippine Congress recognising exemplary artistic achievement, and is now striking off on a new career path as a professional documentarian.

We caught up with Bacani to ask her about her meteoric rise as an artist and her current Beijing show, which is on view at Arrow Factory’s street-facing gallery space through December 5.

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photo by Xyza Cruz Bacani

You joined your mother in Hong Kong as a domestic worker when you were a teenager, and remained in that position for almost 10 years. Has your success as a photographer allowed you to quit this profession? What about the rest of your family?
I joined my mom when I was 19, and I’m now a full-time photographer. My mother still works for the same employer. I’m grateful to my parents that they allowed me to fly and be a photographer.

How did you go about teaching yourself about the technical and compositional aspects of photography when you were first starting out?
I watched a lot of films and studied light.

You were the recipient of last year's Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship to study photography at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts. What was your experience there? What did you learn, from a technical standpoint or more generally from being in that environment or that city?
It was an amazing experience. It changed my life. I gained friends and confidence. I became a better person. It was my first formal training in documentary photography. I adore Susan Meisales, Fred Richin and Elisabeth Kilroy. They were my teachers, and even now still guide me.

When you first started taking street photography, what kind of subjects naturally attracted you? Why?
I’m attracted to gesture, feelings and light because for me, the street is one huge theatre or television where everyone is an actor.

What about today? What subjects or topics do you wish to address now that you have received significant international recognition and formal training?
I’m currently focusing on migrant issues, because I’m a migrant myself. I want my photography to magnify migrants' voices. I basically just love photography, and I would love to put some social responsibility in it.

I read that one of your photo subjects – a Filipina worker in Hong Kong who received third-degree burns while on the job – has received remuneration and damages after your work appeared on CNN. Have you been able to directly help other victims of inhumane treatment within the domestic labor market through your photography?
I try not to intervene while I’m still in the process of photographing them, and as much as possible, to do something about the photos after. As a photographer, it’s my responsibility to get their stories out to a wider audience in the hopes of changing something.

What forms of outreach or activism can you accomplish as a photographer? How do you bridge the gap between the art or gallery world and the 'real world' where your photo subjects live and work?
When a person tells you her story and lets you into her life, it means that she wants to be heard. It’s my chance as a visual artist to tell her story, to reach an audience, because that’s what she wanted. Bridging the gap is more about visual style. I like photos that are visually interesting, and that make people ask questions.

You were recently named an ambassador for Fujifilm. What does this entail?
It’s a secret, haha. But all I can say is that being a Fujifilm Ambassador is a great honor, and the support they give me is wonderful.

Can you elaborate on HR No. 1969, the resolution recently passed by the Philippines House of Representatives in your honor?
It’s just an honor for my excellence in photography. Basically something they write in the history of the Philippine Congress.

In addition to your Arrow Factory show in Beijing, you've also just opened an exhibition called Modern Slavery at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh. What do yo hope is accomplished through these two shows? How active were you in selecting the photos shown, or the method of their presentation?
The Outlier is curated by Qinyi Lim, who is a good friend. I trust her instinct and I respect her as a curator. It’s a result of a great collaboration between me, Qinyi and Arrow Factory. In my Pittsburgh show, or any of my 'documentary' shows, I curate them myself, because these stories are better told by me as a first-hand witness.

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photo by Xyza Cruz Bacani

I was interested in this quote, from your Isolation of the Soul series: 'As an artist, to always be at my creative best, I have a strong desire and need to work alone. This has lead the subject matter of my work to migrate towards individual souls shot against the huge, intimidating architecture of Hong Kong, finding solace from isolated strangers. I become a recorder of things that is happening around me but never a participant of this society.' Can you elaborate on this further?
The photography world is the world of the lonely, and I enjoy being alone. I like being an observer, an outlier but not a part of what I’m photographing.

Do you feel the same kind of inspiration from the architecture of other mega-cities where you've shot, like New York and Dubai?
It changes not because of the place, but because of my feelings or mood at the time that I’m shooting.

What are you working on now? What are your plans for the future, both near- and long-term?
I’m currently working on a project funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. My plans? Go to different countries and explore migrant worker issues, and continue being an artist.

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