Former OFW's photos capture social costs of migrant work

Cathy Yang, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 13 2019 09:15 PM | Updated as of Mar 13 2019 09:46 PM

Courtesy of Xyza Cruz Bacani

MANILA - Overseas Filipino workers are often hailed as modern-day heroes, enduring separation from their loved ones to earn enough to support their families, and remitting money that keeps the Philippine economy humming. 

But a former domestic helper turned award-winning street and documentary photographer has shown just how heavy the cost of migrant work is for OFWs and their families. 

Xyza Cruz Bacani's book "We Are Like Air" documents the life and struggles of migrant workers in Hong Kong and New York, as well as the anguish and hopes of the families they left behind in the Philippines. 

"We never had a family photo together, until 2016 when my brother got married," Bacani said in an interview with ANC. 

Bacani's mother Georgia left them in 1996, when she was just 8 years old, to work, first in Singapore, then in Hong Kong. 

Her father Villamor worked in Saudi Arabia before but was forced to return to the Philippines after being mistreated. Bacani's mother had to work abroad to keep the family farm from being foreclosed by the bank. 

"I just woke up and suddenly I don't have a mother," Bacani recalled. Her mother just left and didn't even say goodbye to her. She missed her mother, felt abandoned.

Still a child back then, Bacani was forced to "grow up fast" and take care of her younger siblings aged 5 and 3, while her father worked in construction jobs to augment the money her mother sent home. 

Eventually, Bacani would also join her mother in Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper, so that her two younger siblings could go to college. 

In stark black and white photos, Bacani tells the story of fellow Filipinos in Hong Kong, who cared for two families--the one employing them, and the one they left behind in the Philippines. 

Courtesy of Xyza Cruz Bacani
Courtesy of Xyza Cruz Bacani

She recalled her own griefs growing up. They could never celebrate Christmas or birthdays together, little things that had a big impact on her and her siblings as they grew up. 

Her pictures caught the eye of Filipino-American photographer Rick Rocamora in 2014. Her photos would eventually be published in Lens, the New York Times' prestigious photojournalism section. 

Bacani admitted that when she first went to Hong Kong, she had a lot of anger towards her mother. They both worked for the same employer, a wealthy and kind-hearted Chinese Australian named Ms. Kathryn Louey. 

It was here that she realized that her mother Georgia worked really hard, hardly going out to discover the city, so she could save more money to send home. 

Photography became Bacani's outlet, a chance to be something else after doing the chores of household work. Ms. Louey lent her money to buy a camera. 

Soon enough, she channeled her anger through her camera lens, capturing the ills of human migration, including human rights abuses. Her work has since been recognized globally. 

Following a Magnum Fellowship and Pulitzer Center scholarship, Xyza now gets commissioned work from Hong Kong to New York.

Looking back at the day her mother left them, Bacani said she finally learned of the reason why Georgia didn't bother waking her up to say goodbye. 

If you wake up and start crying, I might start crying and I may never leave so I just went, Georgia told her.