Xyza Cruz Bacani's photos on display in a street photography exhibit in Manila.
Xyza Cruz Bacani's photos on display in a street photography exhibit in Manila.

(WOMENSENEWS)–In May, Xyza Cruz Bacani, a 28-year-old Filipina nanny in Hong Kong, will leave for New York and possibly say goodbye for good to her life as a domestic helper.

She is among an estimated 320,000 foreign domestic workers in the former Crown Colony. Of the 320,000, 50 percent are from the Philippines while the rest are from other Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Every domestic helper has a story to tell. Some tell of abuse, some of homesickness.

Bacani’s story tells of a dream coming true. It isn’t finished yet but for now, luck is on her side, thanks to fellow Filipino Rick Rocamora, a senior photographer based in the United States.

Rocamora put the global spotlight on the domestic helper by recommending Bacani’s story to the New York Times, which ran a feature on her life and work in the summer of 2014.

Later, Rocamora, who has covered Hong Kong and is aware of the plight of its domestic workers, encouraged Bacani to make a documentary on abused helpers, which she has been working on since last year.

Then, in January, came the news that Bacani had been selected for a prestigious and coveted fellowship of the Magnum Foundation, an organization that "supports, trains and mentors the next generation of photographers."

"All dreams are valid! I am one of the 2015 Magnum Fellows. I am going to see New York and (have) a formal education (in photography)," Bacani wrote on Facebook after she received the good news.

Indeed, for someone who is not a photojournalist or a professional photographer, becoming a Magnum Fellow is almost a miracle.

In an email interview, Bacani said she was literally crying and could hardly contain her excitement. "Dreams are valid. Hard work always pays off," she said.

Craving Formal Education

Bacani said she decided to apply for the Magnum fellowship because she wanted to learn a lot about photography. "I crave for a formal education in photography. I’m self-taught and I know I still need to learn a lot of stuff. With the Magnum fellowship, I will be able to learn, grow and get a wider audience for my documentary and advocacies."

She is excited to leave for New York and intends to apply for other scholarships or similar programs.

In an email interview, Rocamora said he noticed Bacani’s photographs on Facebook and was immediately intrigued by her compositions.

"Young and new photographers can get lucky occasionally to make good images, but Xyza was consistently producing good images daily and the range and variety of her images were so wonderful that anybody who follows her output will recognize that immediately," Rocamora said.

Rocamora, himself mentored by renowned photographers Susan Meiselas and Ed Kashi, said he has always felt he needed to give something back and do the same to young photographers.

"And Xyza was a beneficiary of that," Rocamora said.

Rocamora describes Bacani’s photography as raw but complete with all the elements.

"Her sense of timing when to click the shutter is very good and placements of elements in her composition are almost always perfect. She has the ability to draw the attention of the viewer and keep the attention longer and focused."

Bacani has been working as a nanny in Hong Kong for nearly a decade. She hails from Nueva Ecija, a province in the northern Philippines that is a nine hour drive from Manila, the country’s capital, and works for the same employer who employed her mother some 20 years ago.

She started college with the idea of pursuing a nursing degree but didn’t finish. She wound up going to Hong Kong to join her mother and help support the education of her two younger siblings. Her mother had been working overseas, living apart from the rest of the family, in the broken arrangement of so many Filipino families. Bacani felt the pull of family, the urge for everyone to live together for a while.

Interest Blossomed in College

During her spare time, she wanders the streets of Hong Kong, photographing all over the city. Her interest in photography, according to the article in The New York Times , blossomed when she was in college.

She was only able to buy a camera when she was already in Hong Kong because her employer, an elderly Chinese-Australian woman, pays her for overtime work.

The woman paid for her to study nursing because she wanted another live-in helper to care for her as she got older, according to the same article. Part of her job is taking care of the woman’s seven grandchildren.

As a budding photographer, Bacani dreamed of getting proper schooling in photography.

In November last year, Bacani wrote on her blog that she was doing some photo selection for a scholarship application.

"Maybe the universe will smile and give me a proper schooling in photography. I’m doing OK but I always crave for education."

Bacani has resigned from her Hong Kong employer and she plans to find a job, possibly as a full-time photographer, after her Magnum fellowship.

Rocamora, who continues to mentor Bacani, believes that more doors will open for her after the fellowship.

"She will meet editors who can hire her for future work and her learning curve of being a top-notch documentary photographer will blossom overnight," he said. "She will also have the opportunity to internalize what it takes to be an advocate for human rights. She will continue to be an inspiration to many young Filipinos who may choose the same path or career. She will also learn quickly that making pictures will not be good enough, and she will know that she has to work on every level to make sure that the goal she sets can be accomplished."

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