Ten years ago, she moved to Hong Kong to work as a nanny – now, Xyza Cruz Bacani is an acclaimed photographer whose work has been exhibited in New York, Pittsburgh, Macau and, most recently, Abu Dhabi.
Her story is one of inspiration and perseverance: after growing up in the poverty-stricken Philippine town of Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya, she went to Hong Kong in 2006, at the age of 19, in search of a better life. The eldest of three children, she hoped to earn money to fund her siblings’ education.
Bacani was interested in photography as a child, but it was a passion she could not pursue.
“Photography was something we could not afford,” she says. “The need to survive was greater than the need to do art.”
Five years after moving to Hong Kong, Bacani borrowed money from her employer – a 75-year-old woman with seven grandchildren – to purchase her first digital camera, a Nikon D90. She started shooting portraits of her mother, who was also working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong.
Soon, Bacani was taking photographs whenever she could– while running errands for her employer, buying produce each day in the market or roaming the city on her Sundays off work. Shot in grainy black and white, her snapshots captured small but vibrant moments in the chaotic streets of Hong Kong.
“The thing I like the most about street photography? It’s free,” she says with a laugh. “I shoot daily to relieve my stress. It’s my way of having fun.”
Rick Rocamora, a Filipino photographer in San Francisco, saw Bacani's photos on Facebook. Impressed, he forwarded them to the New York Times, which featured her in a 2014 story headlined "Taking Care of People and Pictures in Hong Kong".
“I thought she was one of those children of rich Filipinos living in Hong Kong, and all she does is go out and take pictures,” Rocamora reportedly said.
“He was really surprised when I told him what my job was,” Bacani says.
Working on a bigger scale
As word spread about her work, Bacani shifted her focus from street photography to documentary photography, covering the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong, as well as abused domestic helpers that had sought shelter in a refuge in the city.
“I’m a migrant worker myself – and I’m in this privileged position to magnify their unheard voices,” Bacani says.
“We keep the Philippine economy afloat with the remittances we send to our families. We sacrifice for the future of our loved ones.”
Last year, Bacani was awarded a prestigious Magnum Foundation human rights scholarship to pursue a short course in photography at New York University. She no longer works as a nanny in Hong Kong, after her employer encouraged her to pursue her passion full-time.
She has since been working on multiple commissioned and personal projects involving refugees, impoverished Muslim communities in the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao and the human trafficking of domestic workers.
The hard work is paying off – she was recently cited by the BBC as one of the 100 Women of the World, as well as by Forbes in its list of 30 Under 30 Artists in Asia.
Her new Abu Dhabi project
Last month, Bacani came to Abu Dhabi for a week-long exhibition of her photographs at the Millennium Corniche Hotel, organised by the Philippine embassy.
She previously visited the UAE after winning fifth prize in the “Faces” category of last year’s Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award.
Now based in Manila, Bacani reveals she has been flying in and out of the Emirates to shoot a documentary project about overseas Filipino workers in the country, which was commissioned by New York University Abu Dhabi. Last October, she also conducted photography workshops for students at the university.
Details about the forthcoming documentary project are under wraps, but Bacani says she has fallen in love with the UAE.
“I’ve been going back and forth since last year – and I want to keep going more,” she says. “I like shooting there. The country is beautiful.”
• For more on Bacani's work, visit www.xyzacruzbacani.com