Artist's photos put focus on domestic abuse in Hong Kong

Moved by the plight of domestic helpers in the city, Australian Katie Vajda decided to do her bit to challenge a few things that have become 'acceptable'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 August, 2015, 8:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 August, 2015, 8:47am

Pulling up a chair at a Tai Hang coffee shop, Australian-born artist Katie Vajda is quick to launch into a conversation about the importance of challenging norms. "For many people who move to Hong Kong, there's a norm and people just follow it, but at some point you have to stop and ask yourself a few questions, to challenge a few things that have become 'acceptable'," says 39-year-old Vajda, who has called Hong Kong home for almost seven years.

And that's just what she did. Moved by the plight of domestic helpers in the city, Vajda decided to do her bit to change the conversation, using photography as her medium. "I was moved by what the media was reporting, but what story got me thinking most about the issue of domestic abuse was this one," she says, reaching deep into her bag and pulling out a tattered Post Magazine, dated March 2, 2014.

"This feature [by SCMP contributor Simon Parry] was the most powerful I'd read, referencing work by Ladegaard [Professor Hans Ladegaard, head of English at Baptist University]. Ladegaard's four years of research really exposed the extent of domestic abuse in the city and peeled back the layers of how and why abuse takes place in a domestic setting."

"I had always wondered why women and girls accepted this treatment, but now, as a mother of two young girls, I know it's because women will do everything to protect and support their children, and their sick parents … There is a bundle of reasons why helpers are rendered vulnerable and powerless. They are held over a barrel."

She flicks through the magazine's pages, most of the story's paragraphs jumping off the page where Vajda had attacked them with a bright pink highlighter pen.

Determined to make a difference, Vajda, who has a background in media and marketing, signed up for a bachelor's in fine arts (photography) at Hong Kong Art School. For one of her projects, Can you see me yet?, Vajda shows two images of a former domestic helper, Efa Sultiane. In the first, Sultiane is wearing a dress with a print like the iconic Burberry fashion brand, a sheet of the same print hanging in the background, a feather duster standing in a vase next to her. In the second shot she is camouflaged, the sheet wrapped around her body.

"The piece questions the treatment and visibility of domestic workers within the social fabric of Hong Kong's middle-class households, the photographs examining the neglect, abuse and obscurity of domestic workers within this fabric. That's what the core of the project was about, the issue of visibility. If a problem is invisible then you can't change it because it's within a domestic scene - it's kind of hidden.

"Yes, it does look like the Burberry pattern," she says, laughing, "but that wasn't the intention. I had tailors make it from fabric sourced from China, and it's a different pattern to Burberry's."

It's more a reference to luxury advertising and how we have become accustomed, in a visual culture, to consider, say a handbag, as more valuable than a person.

I was moved by what the media was reporting, but what story got me thinking most about the issue of domestic abuse was this one
Katie Vajda

"Efa was awesome. She spent many years as a domestic helper and we talked for many hours about that life. She is a brave lady and it was fantastic to translate her story through these images. She transitioned out of domestic help and is now able to talk without fear or anxiety about the issues."

On advice from her art school lecturer, Vajda submitted the project for last year's Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize, organised by the Hong Kong Justice Centre.

"My lecturer said my images fitted the prize's theme of modern slavery and human trafficking."

Her entry scooped first prize - in the same week that saw the end of the high-profile court case of abused Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose employer was sentenced to six years in prison.

The recognition of her work put Vajda on the creative express. Soon after winning the prize, she was featured in local media and arts magazines and in February she staged a solo photography exhibition "20 Girls" at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The exhibition was based on the 20th anniversary (hence 20 girls) of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a UN-backed global roadmap for women's rights and empowerment. The images are classically styled in old-fashioned Victorian-style frames and all the girls, aged between four and eight, have the same tribal stripes smeared across their cheeks, the "war paint" made with make-up. But what's most powerful is that the girls are not smiling.

"These images really offer a stark contrast to the images that grace the choreographed happy snaps on social media."

Flicking through her iPad, another shot catches the eye, an image of naked, winged Barbie dolls falling from a bookshelf, some of the book titles visible. And it's not surprising to see a copy of The Female Eunuch, the international bestseller by feminist writer Germaine Greer. Female empowerment is a regular theme for Vajda and it again resonates in her latest work that shows a naked woman covered in clay, Chinese characters scrawled on her legs.

"'Body Domestic' is all about the female body, about liberation. It's about the body becoming numbed in certain settings and how hard it is to break out from that and find our own bit of wild - to be a bit more free, to find a place where we can let go."

The deadline for entries to the HK Human Rights Arts Prize is September 20. Register at