Behind the lens: Hong Kong domestic helpers discover their hidden talent for photography

In the second part of our series, SCMP brings in focus two Indonesian maids/photographers Sinna Hermanto and Asti Maria

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 July, 2015, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 July, 2015, 6:29pm


Domestic helper Asti Maria only gets to see Hong Kong's landscapes on Sundays, her days off, but she preserves the memory of the city's mountains and hills, and the feeling of peace she gets from it, through photographs.

"My favourite photo is of a dog sitting on a cliff. You can see a beach in Sai Kung in front of it. I like that because I feel serenity [when I look at it]," says the 33-year-old from Malang, East Java, in Indonesia.

Even before Asti came to Hong Kong to work as a maid seven years ago, she already had a nascent interest in photography.

Her uncle, a freelance graphic designer and part-time photographer, would lend her an analog camera and teach her how to develop film negatives. "I always wanted to be like him, to do what he does", but financial constraints kept her from pursuing the hobby.

She worked for a few years as a worker in a shoe factory in the Indonesian port city of Surabaya, 760 kilometres east of Jakarta, before seeking more money by working abroad as a helper. She came to Hong Kong in 2008.

Photography took a back seat for awhile until 2012, when she decided she could save enough of her salary to buy a point-and-shoot digital camera. She would practice whenever she could steal a chance, especially when her employers in Hong Kong would send her out to buy groceries.

"I go to the market and while walking on the street, I take [a few] photos. Even if I know there might not be a special thing [to take a picture of], I bring my camera," she says.

But it is on days off, when she goes hiking, that she can indugle in her favourite photography subject: landscapes.

"I wanted to show people the landscapes of Hong Kong and say, 'You must go there.' I wanted to show how beautiful the nature is," she says.

A few months later, she joined a contest held by the Hong Kong-based Indonesian photography club Indographers, and won first prize. Her reward: a DLSR camera.

While seeking help on using the professional camera, she found out about Lensational, a social enterprise that teaches photography skills to women in developing countries as a way to empower them and give them a voice. She took training courses for several months and learned new techniques, as well as met close friends like fellow Indonesian Sinna Hermanto (read her story here).

She even found that photography was a way to connect with her current employer with Hong Kong, who also likes to take photos as a hobby. "He supports me [in my hobby]. If he has a new good photo, he shares it with me, and I show him mine. He says my photos are good," Asti says.

"I feel more confident and I think that when I come back to Indonesia, [I can say] I'm not only a helper there, I learned many things in Hong Kong," she says.

When her work contract ends this August, Asti plans to return home to Malang. But her dreams of becoming a landscape and wedding photographer, she says, will have to wait as it is a tough profession to enter. Instead, she plans to open a snacks shop, a safer bet for steady income.

"It's difficult to be a photographer in Indonesia because everyone can have a DSLR. It's competitive. Sometimes you have to lower your price to get customers. So we must fina new way to find money from photography," Asti says.

Nevertheless, Asti still hopes she can put her photography skills to good use. "You can't say I'm a professional photographer yet, but I want to share what I learned from Lensational, sharing photography skills to the others in Indonesia."

Lensational will hold an exhibition of the migrant workers' photographs from August 15-17 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. For more information, visit Read the first part of this series here