By turning her camera lens on domestic workers like herself, Brendalle Belaza wants to show another side to life as a nanny in the Gulf.
She believes household help in the UAE are seldom photographed, interviewed, or portrayed on television; that they are almost invisible.
Following a photography workshop at New York University Abu Dhabi, Ms Belaza, 41, herself a nanny, began photographing their more candid moments.
She took pictures of them at Christmas parties or relaxing with friends in Abu Dhabi’s parks. Today, she instructs in the very programme that got her started in photography.
“Nowadays nannies are in a vulnerable situation but I don’t want to talk vulnerabilities, I want to talk in a positive way,” she said.
“I want them to be an example of a positive life here being a nanny. I want people to see that it’s not always negative being a domestic worker, there is also a positive community that will encourage you and help you grow.”
Ms Belaza came to the Emirates in 2007 to work as a nanny. She has since cared for three families, managed a pottery studio and discovered her talents as a photographer through workshops at NYUAD.
Ms Belaza grew up in the countryside in Crossing Rubber, in the south of the Philippines. As a girl, she helped her father on the family’s corn and rice farm and then completed a degree in animal husbandry.
She came to the Emirates to nanny for an Egyptian family following a divorce. The family gave her a mobile phone. It was her first camera.
Later, after three years of managing a pottery studio she returned to nannying full-time for an American family at New York University - Abu Dhabi.
Through them, she began classes in English, financial literacy and photography with the university’s Office of Social Responsibility.
Before long, she was instructing NYUAD staff, domestic worker colleagues and faculty in a photography workshop about finding home away from home.
She serves as a community ambassador to connect other nannies in Abu Dhabi to workshops available at the university.
However, it can be a challenge for domestic workers to attend workshops because of their limited free time.
“The problem with being a nanny is the timing,” said Ms Belaza. “If I am a nanny and I get only one day off, I won’t attend. I’ll want to rest for the whole six days of the week. Our time is limited.”
She current nannies for a three-year-old girl, mentors amateur photographers and volunteers at events like the Special Olympics World Games and World Refugee Day.
On her phone, she keeps photos of her friends made through the programme and the children she’s helped raise, like the two Egyptian babies she cared for when she first arrived.
“The boy that I raised before, he was three months. Now he’s 11. I was holding him as a baby. Now he carries me when I visit.”
For Ms Belaza, photography has also brought her closer to her son, who she left in the care of her family when she came to the Emirates. He was six years old.
“I didn’t raise my son when he was a baby,” said Ms Belaza. “I was raising someone’s child, so in return [I was] away from my son the whole time. That’s the most regretful thing that I’ve done.
“But the thing is, I love being with my kids and raised them as if they were my own. Kids know how I love them.”
Her success has inspired her son. Her exhibition inspired him to work for local papers and became the vice president of film and media at his secondary school.
“The best thing is he can see what I’m doing here. When he found out I’m a photographer he started photography too,” she said.
Soon, he will attend college on a scholarship. Her work has touched many lives, said Liria Gjidija, NYUAD’s assistant director of social Responsibility and community engagement.
“Brenda is among those very rare individuals that is destined to make a profound difference in the lives of others, as she already has,” said Ms Gjidija.
“Her concern for our community and interest in their personal stories, talents and aspirations, her warmth, compassion and energy, her effectiveness in mobilising others to participate in educational programming, her extraordinary humanity and goodness: these are among a few of her exceptional qualities.”