A Portrait of the Artist as Migrant Worker

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A Portrait of the Artist as Migrant Worker

A street photograph by Xyza Cruz Bacani on one of her explorations around Hong Kong (xyzacruzbacani.com)

The Plight of the Migrant Worker

It is highly likely that we know at least one person in our immediate community, be it our circle of friends or family, who is working abroad to make ends meet. A survey on overseas Filipinos conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reveals that between April to September 2019, there are about 2.2 million deployed Filipinos working abroad (19). The survey only provides a small slice of the Filipino diaspora which is estimated to be about 10.2 million in 2013 by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas. In the paper “The Filipino Diaspora”, E. San Juan reflects on the implications and ramifications of the extensive migration of the Filipino people. San Juan situates the Filipino diaspora in a milieu constantly being influenced by globalization, the government/state in the Philippines and ties it with notions of identity and nationhood. This extensive migration, which up to this point is not letting up any time soon, is a reaction to the worsening social, economic and political conditions at home. He goes on to infer that “the functionality of the Overseas Contract Workers was constructed and/or discovered by the elite and its hegemonic patrons as a response to both local and global conditions” (260). The government started to hail the Filipino migrant worker as mga bagong bayani during Cory Aquino’s administration, specifically in the implementation of the manpower export program in 1974 (Baysa 47). It is in this patronization and glorification that this culture of migration is being condoned. In a lucid realization, San Juan merely echoes what I have been trying to grapple with: remittances have kept the “rotten system afloat” (260). To a migrant worker like myself, it is such a pain to realize that the condition I was trying to escape from is the same condition I am actually supporting.

The Filipino diaspora, to which the Filipino migrant worker community belongs, is an oddity in itself. Its “identity” is tied to both the Filipino-ness they possess and to the country they reside, within which they constantly seek the approval of belonging. It has a kind of agency independent from the Philippines but is inextricably intertwined with memories of it. Dispersed from their homeland, they have to contend with a new home to adapt and survive. San Juan borrows James Clifford’s idea of “contemporary travelling cultures — a version of the cargo cults — borne by nomadic or diasporic intellectuals” (260). From an anthropological perspective, these migrant workers bring with them their identities and take part in cultural exchange within the locality they situate themselves. It is in this sense that we afford them the term transnationals. On a macro level, one can characterize the Filipino migrant worker easily: the domestic helper, the seafarer, the factory worker, the restaurant cook, the engineer, and the nurse. On another statistic, during that same survey period by the PSA, an estimated PHP 211.9 billion in remittances were sent by 1.9 million overseas Filipino workers. These statistics only serve to give a superficial characterization of the Filipino migrant worker. Beyond them are their individual sensibilities, their aims, hopes, and dreams. What we can do is turn to the production of art to access these sensibilities and paint a more nuanced portrayal of their struggles.

Artists Abroad

Given the massive dispersion of the Filipino diaspora, depictions of artists abroad do not necessarily suffice. If viewed from a wider perspective, these depictions serve as markers of a contested Filipino identity positioned to create a nationalizing agenda. In “At Home & Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists”, an exhibition held at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, California in 1998, there was a distinction between the contemporary Filipino artist and the ilustrados as elaborated by Jeff Baysa in his article as part of the accompanying catalogue for the exhibition. The ilustrados were motivated by “curiosity, dissatisfaction, boredom and ties with family members abroad” (48). They were comprised of men who belonged to the elite class, aloof and separated from the masses. Luna’s portrayal of the Spoliarium alludes to a Eurocentric aesthetic, the kind that highlights the dualism of his class status. On the one hand, he carries with him his identity as Filipino yet on the other he tries to appeal to the colonizer by sacrificing this identity. In contrast, Baysa describes the contemporary Filipino artist as someone who “seeks to reframe colonial history”. He adds that as they are “much more interested in a global aesthetic, these artists locate themselves by the triangulation of the physical self, social body, and memory while recognizing that identity is no longer simply defined by nation-state boundaries” (49). Artists abroad during the time of the curation of this exhibition were portrayed in their respective contexts of struggling to contend with displacement. Their practices were also narrated and their backgrounds were neatly enumerated. The Filipino artists who have established and situated their art practice abroad that were featured were Gaston Damag, Manuel Ocampo, Lani Maestro, Paul Pfeiffer, Alan Valencia, Pacita Abad, Alwin Reamillo, Stephanie Syjuco and Lordy Rodriguez. Artists in the Philippines at the time of the exhibition who portrayed themes of diaspora and migration, and were included in the exhibition were Nunelucio Alvarado, Elmer Borlongan, Alfredo Esquillo, Jr., Brenda Fajardo, Roberto Feleo, Anna Fer, Mark Justiniani, Clodualdo Llana, Jose Tence Ruiz and the Sanggawa Collective comprised of Elmer Borlongan, Federico Sievert, Mark Justiniani, Karen Flores and Joy Mallari.

What was strikingly similar among these artists is that they already have a background in the field of visual arts and thus the conferment of their status as artists, their works as art and the subsequent acceptance by the art world was already guaranteed. These artists are of relatively affluent backgrounds whose struggles do not necessarily represent the more marginalized, those who are more prone to exploitation and abuse. This is not to discredit the sensibilities of these artists. Yet the voices they are trying to portray seem incomplete. What do we make of those who create “art” that is yet to be recognized by the art world and try to shed light on the kind of struggles they are undergoing? Would it be more appropriate if those at the fringes, the “outliers” are the ones empowered to tell their own stories?

This essay seeks to discuss the art practice of Xyza Cruz Bacani, a Filipino, previously a domestic helper in Hong Kong, who has gained recognition in street photography and documentary photography. Her story is the most accessible at the moment due in part to the attention the media has accorded her and the velocity of the trajectory of her career. Her art practice is not singular though as more migrant workers seek to find different vehicles of expression in bringing their stories to the forefront.

FIG. 1 Xyza Cruz Bacani captures the silhouette of a pedestrian (xyzacruzbacani.com)

The Politics of Photography and the Image

At the center of our discussion is the practice of photography and its subliminal access to the consciousness of the masses. Photography or the practice of taking photographs has become ubiquitous due in part to advancements in digital technologies that have enabled nearly anybody who can access a camera to partake in such an endeavor. We owe this to the beginnings and development of the camera obscura, which was a shed or a small structure that acted as a dark chamber with a pinhole on one wall that projected an image from the outside environment to the opposite wall or surface. Modern photography was born out of the development of technologies that tried to capture and preserve this projected image. Though much has changed from that once house-like structure to now the camera that we can conveniently hold with one hand, the principles of photography have stayed the same: to capture an image, preserve it and reproduce it. It is in this immediacy and accessibility of execution that we shall expound on our purposes of discussion. In this day and age, anybody can take a good, well-lit photograph even with their smartphones.

Photography applies principles of optics and this is where it derives its technicalities. Light passes through an aperture that expands or contracts. Using different types of lenses produce different kinds of effects. The wider the angle of the lens, the more of the environment is taken in, the narrower the angle, the more intimate and more close-up the focus of the photograph becomes. Before the digital camera, the type of film to be used mattered: is it in black and white or colored? What level of sensitivity of the film should be considered to engage with low light settings? With studio light? Now, these choices are replaced by buttons whose settings can provide these effects with ease and immediacy. Practically anything can be photographed but it is this selectivity in framing a subject that gives photography a kind of power that amplifies a given, a fact, a truth. Sturken and Cartwright emphasize that “the creation of an image through a camera lens always involves some degree of subjective choice through selection, framing and personalization” (16). This does not discount the fact that photographs have been treated with a kind of objectivity that regards them as visual evidence. It is in this tension of the subjective and the objective that Sturken and Cartwright derive the “myth of the photographic truth”: that although we are aware of the kind of subjectivity and selectivity in the process of taking a photograph, the output is still regarded as “an unmediated copy of the real world, a trace of reality skimmed off the very surface of life” (17).

In examining Xyza’s photographs, we borrow the ruminations of Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida. A photograph always represents a splice of elapsed time, frozen in perpetuity. As Barthes has stated: “the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially” (4). Barthes observed that “a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look” (9). He goes on to enumerate three key perspectives: the operator (photographer), the spectator (viewer), and the spectrum (subject). We can expand this definition by saying that a photograph is simultaneously an expression of the operator, a representation of the spectrum, and an interpretation of the spectator. These layers pave the way for various meanings that can be derived from photographs. He points out performativity on the part of the spectrum as they pose in front of the lens: they “derive [their] existence from the photographer” (11). The power of a photograph does not solely lie in the spectrum it tries to capture but in the image it tries to convey. Barthes notes that the (profound) self, being the spectrum, is separate from the (mobile) image: “‘myself’ never coincides with my image” (12). Here he highlights the “heavy, motionless, stubborn” image as something that society sustains. Images are powerful since, as Sturken and Cartwright explained: “they are produced within dynamics of social power and ideology” (21). We can see how images are valued in our society and how they in turn propagate systems of beliefs and assumptions.

At this point, we treat the practice of photography as a kind of worldmaking, an assertion of one’s understanding of the space they reside in. The photographer here is Xyza, a migrant worker, and a disadvantaged operator who inverts the power of oppression into a kind of empowerment that seeks to affect the spectator. The malleability of this practice comes with it the power of highlighting and bringing to view pressing social issues, in this case, the struggles of migrant workers. As in the words of Susan Sontag: “to take a photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power” (174).

Fig. 2 Xyza reveals the inner life of a chef in Hong Kong (xyzacruzbacani.com)

A Migrant’s Keen Eye

Rendered in black and white, the street photographs of Xyza hint at the stark contrast of her status as a domestic helper serving a very affluent family in Hong Kong. Armed with a camera she bought with the overtime pay she gets from her employer, Ms. Louey, she roams the streets of Hong Kong on her days off and on nights after her day shift to capture the city she resides in. In a photo series she titled Isolation of the Soul, she recounts feelings of dread as she realizes she does not belong to this foreign city. She states her realization on her website:

“I’ve always badly wanted to feel like this is my second home, but tragically I have never felt like I belong, and have recently come face to face with the reality that I’ve spent nearly a decade of my life here, living in complete isolation. I am nothing but a mere observer of this place.”

The strangers she photographed on the streets are dwarfed by the intimidating scale of Hong Kong’s cityscape. The wide-angle lens she uses backs people up at a corner while still interacting with objects in view within the frame of the photo. It is not by chance that she captures the silhouette of a person lit by the reflection of the sun on an Esprit store window as that person traverses the street (Fig. 1). In a succeeding photo, she peers through a tiny kitchen window, revealing the inner life of a chef at the Mong Kok District (Fig. 2). In another, she traps a woman within bamboo scaffolding as she gives her a glance while sifting through piles of folded cardboard boxes (Fig. 3). With the strong intent to isolate her subject matter, she mirrors her sentiments of the city. She projects her inner self unto the photos she takes. She admits she finds solace in engaging with fellow strangers this way.

FIG. 3 Xyza frames her subject matter, mirroring her sentiments of isolation in Hong Kong (xyzacruzbacani.com)

Kerri MacDonald details the beginnings of her hobby-turned-career in a feature article in The New York Times in 2014, describing her photos as “black and white street scenes, with dramatic light and compositions that ranged from kinetic to serene”. This is after Rick Rocamora sent the editors a sample of Bacani’s works. Bacani’s black and white photos of Hong Kong captured the attention of Rick Rocamora on Facebook. The platform initially became her virtual gallery space, free of the constraints of a physical gallery, exhibition costs, commission fees and the like. Rocamora likened her to Vivian Maier, a nanny who lived in Chicago and took up an interest in street photography. This is their only similarity though and more notably, Vivian Maier’s photographs we only recognized posthumously. Bacani still has the wit and vitality to take her art practice a step further. It is in this moment of meeting with Rocamora that Bacani has gained access to resources in developing her keen eye for photography which was only made available to the wealthy elite. Bacani won a 2015 Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship to study documentary photography at New York University.

Rocamora encouraged Bacani to explore the streets more and document stories of fellow migrant workers. In a 2015 interview with Howie Severino, Bacani notes that she used her status as a domestic helper to her advantage. She is one of them and the act of intruding on their space simply did not exist. “Walang mask (they wore no masks),” she quips. The domestic helpers did not act nor did they exist for the sole perversion of the photographer. They exist. Bacani was a medium through which they can tell their stories. It was this level of honesty that any other photographer cannot capture. She recounts in the interview that initially, she wanted to become the eyes of her mother, also a domestic helper. Her mother never takes a day off and could not roam the streets of Hong Kong as freely as she can. She has now become the eyes and the voices of her peers who are struggling far worse than her. She admits she was not aware of their struggles before taking up documentary photography because she was only interested in her solitary ways. It is the realization that she can wield this power to document their lives that gave her a higher purpose. In 2014, Bacani began the project of documenting the lives of migrant workers who sought protection in the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge. According to the documentation of Ilaria Maria Sala, “as of December 2014, live more than 330,000 “foreign domestic helpers” who hail from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.” One photo is of Shirley Dalisay and Marisa having a chat. Shirley, seated at the right, is photographed with her arm clearly dotted with signs of abuse, scars and fresh wounds. “Shirley’s back was scalded by boiling soup in an accident at her employers’ home after which her contract was abruptly terminated,” Bacani explains in a BBC interview. Her photos of the migrant workers were not only of sorrow but also of newfound hope. Bacani captures the attention of the viewer and elicits attention to these stories that often come neglected.

FIG. 4 Xyza Cruz Bacani for Chinafile.com

Sontag claims that the photographer trades their power to intervene with the firm decision of documenting the moment instead. She states that “the person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene” (178). In stating this, she underscores a kind of passiveness. What lacked elaboration is that the photographer gains a different power in doing so. To intervene at that moment and change its course immediately is to act on a personal level. To document and take a photograph is to share the burden of witnessing the moment, and to invite others to look as well. A photograph appeals to a collective. With the right onlooker, it enrages action. With the right operator/photographer, the kind of stories that are told become stark records of abuse and neglect that needed to be heard. In a 2020 NPR article, Bacani documents the complexities of the Philippines’ policy ban on childbirth amidst the pandemic. She follows the story of Risa Calibuso who lives in Abinganan, Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya. She writes:

“As a reporter, I am trained not to intervene in the lives of my subjects — but given the circumstance, I felt I had to offer to bring her to the hospital. The midwife came along and talked to Calibuso about how to breathe through the contractions” (Bacani)

She is not only an observer but she also takes on the role of an active mediator. With the progression of her practice into documentary photography, she has cultivated this image of being an empathetic photographer, aware of the sensibilities of her subjects.

With Bacani’s art practice, we see how the kind of empowerment she received empowers other people who are struggling as well. We can see the kind of worldmaking an empowered migrant worker brings. Through the medium of photography, countless narratives can be told but the specificity of these narratives depends on who narrates them. She is not ashamed of her background as she detailed in her 2015 interview. She said she embraces it.

With the speed through which she has developed her career, we see two things: the effect of her photographs and the affect of her story. The kind of narratives she portrays in her framing of subjects reflects the kind of character she has at that given moment. The recognition of her works by renowned institutions and photographers has enabled her to gain confidence in the work she now has, to tell the stories of the undocumented, the once invisible. She has probably come full circle when she wrote her first book “We Are Like Air”, published by WE Press in 2018. Here she documents the story of her mother, Georgia. It is in part a retelling of Xyza’s personal story as well. Looking back, she can now recount their stories with clarity.

In 2015, Bacani became part of “Unpredictable… Unscripted”, an exhibition held in Vargas Museum curated by Rick Rocamora. It featured the works of sixteen street photographers all over the world with differing backgrounds. Most of whom are migrant workers: Jomel Bartolome, a chef in Kuwait; Elpidio Juan, a draftsman in Hong Kong; Ben Molina, an amateur photographer based in California; Arthur Quejadas II, an OFW based in South Korea; and Jojo Pensica a teacher in China (Albano). Though only a part of their portfolio was shown, the language of photography has enabled them to tell their own stories the way they want their stories to be told. Their stories exist in glaring perpetuity through this language. ■


Albano, Lou. “‘Unscripted…Unpredictable,’ the very first street photography exhibit in Metro Manila, opens today at the Vargas MuseumCoconuts Manila. 5 Feb. 2015. Web.

Bacani, Xyza Cruz. “The Philippines Has A Policy Against Home Births. It’s Not Playing Well In A PandemicNPR.org. 25 Oct. 2020. Web.

Baysa, Jeff. “Longing/Belonging: Filipino Artists Abroad” At Home & Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists. San Francisco, California: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1998. 45–56. Archive.org. Web.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981. E-book.

BBC News. “BBC 100 Women 2015: A journey from maid to photographerBBC.com. 19 Nov. 2015. Web.

Estrin, James. “A Mother and Daughter’s Unlikely Journey as Migrant WorkersThe New York Times. 27 Dec. 2018. Web.

MacDonald, Kerri. “Taking Care of People and Pictures in Hong KongThe New York Times. 18 Jun. 2014. Web.

Philippine Statistics Authority. 2019 Survey on Overseas Filipinos. Web.

Sala, Ilaria Maria. “When Hong Kong’s Domestic Helpers Need HelpChinaFile.com. 11 Feb 2016. Web.

San Juan, Jr. E. “The Filipino Diaspora” Philippine Studies, Vol. 49, №2 (Second Quarter 2001): 255–264. Web.

Severino, Howie. Part 1: Howie Severino Interviews The New Fujifilm Ambassador Xyza Bacani Cruz. WazzupPH. Web video.

Severino, Howie. Part 2: Howie Severino Interviews The New Fujifilm Ambassador Xyza Bacani Cruz. WazzupPH. Web video.

Sontag, Susan. “On Photography” Communication in History: Technology, Culture, and Society. 4th Ed. Eds. David Crowley and Paul Heyer. Allyn & Bacon, 2002. E-book.

Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 2001. Archive.org. Web.

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