Skip to navigationSkip to content

A domestic worker became one of the world’s “most inspiring women” through photography

Photo courtesy of Xyza Cruz
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

After 10 years working as a maid in Hong Kong, photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani has been named one of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2015.

“Until March 2015, I used to wake up early, clean the house before my boss woke up, prepare her breakfast then drink my coffee,” the 27-year-old tells Quartz. “The rest of the day, I spent it with the kids and ran errands.”

Bacani started moonlighting as a photographer to let her mother see through her eyes. “I started taking pictures because I wanted to document the lives of domestic workers, and because of my mother. She never goes out and is very hard working,” she says. “I became her eye in the outside world.”

She adds:

When I started taking pictures I felt free. There is a bad stigma when you’re a domestic worker. They put you in a box. Society has a very low regard for my former job, but when I was photographing, I felt free of that stigma.

I remember the first time I told my mother that I want to buy a camera. She said ‘photography is only for rich people.’ I understood her because cameras are expensive. When you are poor, the need to survive is greater than the need to create art. But I was stubborn, and I bought my first camera in December 2009, after loaning money from my boss. That was two months’ salary.

In 2014, Bacani, who had never trained in photography before, applied to the 2015 Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship, which funds enrollment in a six-week photography course in New York City. In March 2015, she was accepted, and flew that summer to New York with five other photographers from different regions of the world.

Xyza Cruz Bacani
Indonesian domestic workers wearing traditional dress during their day off.

The photographs that Bacani shoots are stark, sometimes shocking, but always deeply empathetic. She focuses on domestic workers and human rights in Hong Kong, as well as human trafficking.

“I want to focus on migrants issues because I am a migrant myself,” she says. “I feel that I owe it to them. One of the refugees I photographed last May told me ‘Go to New York, represent people like us, Allah will guide you!’ I can’t forget that. My aim will always be to tell more unreported stories.”

Bacani credits her parents as the driving force behind her determination and work ethic:

I hope I am like my mother, even half of her. She works really hard for our family. She is so proud of whatever good that is happening to me now. My parents are my universe and they are my drive. When I am feeling lazy, I think about them and I force my lazy self to work. No excuses.”

On Nov. 15the BBC named Bacani to its 100 Women of 2015, a list reserved for visionaries, where she richly deserves to be. Nonetheless, she says: “I feel like I haven’t done enough. I never like my images! I just work! Maybe because of my domestic worker days. I just work, no question asked.”

Xyza Cruz Bacani
Shirley, a domestic worker in Hong Kong, suffered 3rd degree burns while she was working.
Xyza Cruz Bacani
Daisy, a human trafficking survivor in New York, calls her children in the Philippines.
Xyza Cruz Bacani
Daisy at work.

Susan Meiselas, president of the Magnum Foundation, told Quartz: “[Xyza] doesn’t really focus on maids inside the houses. She captures their time together outside, to show what is life outside of those conditions. That what was striking in her pictures when she submitted them for the fellowship.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.