Xyza Bacani with Clifford Hart, US consul general to Hong Kong and Macau. The US consulate is the sponsor of Human Slavery, Bacani’s current solo exhibition. Photo: Lawrence Ng

Ex-domestic helper Xyza Bacani on her Hong Kong photo show about human trafficking

Magnum Fellowship winner’s new exhibition depicts the human cost of modern-day slavery but with a focus on the hope amid the horror. ‘Victims do not have to look sad,’ she says

Photographer Xyza Bacani’s new Hong Kong exhibition is on the theme of human trafficking. Unlike the images used to illustrate news stories, such as the Syrians risking their lives to escape to Europe, or the mass graves of trafficking victims discovered near the Thai-Malaysian border last year, the photos Bacani, a Filipino former domestic helper in Hong Kong, has shot avoid direct depictions of the horror and despair of an evil trade. Instead, they focus on the strength and tenacity of those who have survived.

The black-and-white photos in the “Modern Slavery” exhibition were taken since 2015 in New York, Hong Kong, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. The subjects are all victims of human trafficking – people from Asia who agreed to pay a middleman an amount they couldn’t afford in return for a job in a wealthy country. When they get to their destination, the work, the salary and their immigration status are very different from what was agreed and – like, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, the Indonesian domestic helper physically abused by her Hong Kong employer – they often end up in debt bondage and, in many cases, without the legal right to work.

Xyza Bacani at her solo exhibition in Hong Kong. Photo: Lawrence Ng

The images taken in New York were the earliest in the series. That was where Bacani studied photography with a scholarship from the Magnum Foundation in 2015, after a decade working as a domestic helper, and she spent a lot of time talking to and photographing women who were determined to carve out a new life in the Big Apple despite a rocky start. Some of the images are startling in their ordinariness: smiling women going about their daily lives as domestic helpers, as mothers, as managers of small businesses, their stories supplemented by simple captions.

“These are not the typical, terrible images you see in the media. I think that when an image is too much, people look away. I don’t want people to look away. I want them to wonder, to question, how is this a picture of trafficking?”

She says the people she spoke to want to stay there to realise the American dream. “They want to improve their economic lives and help their families. That’s why they went in the first place. I chose these images because I want to make the point that victims of trafficking do not have to look sad, damaged and miserable. These survivors often stay in America on a so-called T visa, granted after they convinced the authorities that they were trafficked. They are staying there legally now, and they need to feed their families back home, so they try and survive even though they went through a terrible ordeal,” Bacani says.

“People who see these photographs often say that the subjects don’t look like they were trafficked, but that’s because there is no one face of human trafficking,” she says.

Images from Bacani’s show.

Bacani was shocked to find how prevalent the human trade is in supposedly developed countries. Here in Hong Kong, she says, tales of victims moving on are decidedly rare compared with in the US, because traffickers rarely get prosecuted.

“‘Modern Slavery’ is a personal project for me and it has to do with my background. I was a domestic helper for 10 years since the age of 19. I am an insider. I feel what they’ve been going through, especially the permanent separation from your children. I am a child of a domestic worker who came to Hong Kong and I grew up without a mother. Still, I want to show that this community is not just about bad news,” she adds.

Bacani also has first-hand experience of Hong Kong’s prejudicial immigration policy towards domestic helpers. Having spent her entire adult life working in the city, she can only visit on a temporary tourist visa, if she gets one. By comparison, America has been more generous. She has a 10-year multiple-entry visa that allows her to stay there for up to six months at a time.

“Hong Kong’s immigration always gives me a hard time even though my art is here, and a big part of my life is here. I came here from a village in the Philippines and I have learned everything I know here. Hong Kong is my home,” she says.

“Modern Slavery”, May 21-Jun 10, KONG Art Space, 3 Staunton Street, Central, Mon-Fri, 11am-5pm