Xyza Cruz Bacani on Mentorship and the Limits of Photojournalism
Xyza Bacani quickly rose from obscurity—as a nanny in Hong Kong who took pictures on her days off—to become one of photojournalism’s most promising talents. Her work documenting migrant workers and survivors of human trafficking, capturing their unbroken spirit, not their victimhood, stems from her compassion and her own perspective as a former domestic helper.
A show in St Louis, a Pulitzer gender conference, and a grant for your first book about mobility, plus your Modern Slavery exhibit moving around to several spaces. It’s a very busy year for you!
Nakakapagod! I realized I have only five T-shirts (laughs). I do enjoy it, I really get bored when I don’t work. I was used to working every day, now I have more free time I’m not comfortable with it. I try to find work, then I overbook myself. I need to remind myself, I have a book to do! Take it slow.
Photography is a privilege, it always has been. Because once you’ve shot something, it’s like you're holding on to it. You’re not leaving the experience.
You’ve also received a grant to continue a project you’re working on in the Philippines. What’s it about?
It’s about how education can bridge the gap for communities in war-torn areas. It’s solutions journalism, which is not just about the problem, but a solution that can be adapted all over the world. Sometimes good stories are not easily published. It doesn’t sell— sex and poverty sells, but not these kind of stories.
I started the project in 2015, but I want to dig deeper. It’s a multimedia project, a heavy responsibility.
You also work in video?
That’s the good thing about the Magnum foundation fellowship. I went in an innocent, and came out a different person. In six weeks I learned how to do video, edit, audio, narrative… In this industry you need to adapt or die. You can’t be just a one-trick person. A lot of pressure, but that’s why you’re in this industry.
Speaking of pressure, there’s been a lot of controversy lately in the world of photojournalism.
I was really saddened by that. The industry is small. Everyone knows Souvid Datta was working on what project. We had a lot in common—we're both Pulitzer grantees, PDN 30, Magnum Foundation, maraming connections. I would’ve met him in June, he was supposed to be on the Pulitzer panel, but they took him out. I feel bad for him, but in my opinion, if someone had mentored him and trained him, maybe things would’ve turned out differently. But still—I have friends who were 19, 20 when they started out, and they wouldn’t do that. It’s so stupid. Mary Ellen Mark, why would you steal from a famous photographer? It’s sad especially in the situation now, there is no trust from the public. Pagsinabi photojournalist ka, andyan agad yung doubt.
On the other hand, you were mentored.
When that news came out, I was really grateful to all my mentors, my elders. When I was just starting, they pointed out the importance of ethics. If I was in somebody’s situation and I was being photographed, would I like it? Put yourself in that situation. Photography is a privilege, it always has been. Because once you’ve shot something, it’s like you're holding on to it. You’re not leaving the experience.
With Datta, it was far worse than just Photoshopping.
I was hoping the situation was staged and the girl was not being raped. For the girl’s sake, I hoped it was staged. Maybe he will admit it. He’s an accessory to a crime. The guy was on top of a 12-year-old kid and he photographed her on top of them. WTF dude. The caption says rape. So someone is being raped and your first instinct is to [take a photo]. So that’s why I’m hoping it was staged.
Who do you consider your mentors?
Rick Rocamora, Susan Meiselas, Robin Moyer… I have quiet mentors who don’t want to be mentioned but I’m in contact with all the time. Fred Ritchin, David Gonzalez. If I don’t know something, I’m not scared to ask. I’d rather be known as someone who asks rather than someone who assumes.
Rick Rocamora was the one who sent your photos to The New York Times Lens Blog. Did you know him at the time?
No, only on Facebook. It’s a funny one. He said, I will try to send your photos to publications. I did not dream of this. Life was good already, I had a good job, I was helping my family, I was with my mother. I really love photography as it is. And he said, NYT will contact you. I was like, OK. I was so ignorant. My world revolved around my job and the children, so I didn’t think about the implications. Then I did the interview with [NYT photo editor] Kerri MacDonald. When the article came out so many people started contacting me. I was so stressed! I never realized the impact but it was huge, it opened the door in so many ways. But I worked hard, that’s what people don’t realize, they think it was just handed to me. I was with James Estrin of NYT, we were editing my Singapore story. I said, I owe NYT my career. He was really nice, he said, yes, we published you, but you charged on. We opened the door and you just went in, that’s what makes you different. I’m still always grateful to NYT, they could have just said no to my story.
ON LEAVING HOME AND COMING BACK
At what point did you decide you were ready to commit yourself full-time to photography and can quit your job?
When I got fired! At first I didn’t want to go to New York when I got the Magnum Human Rights fellowship. What about my job, how will I help my family? One income will be lost. You know how my employer found out? From the newspaper. She called me right away, why did you not tell me? I said, I’m not sure I’m going to accept it. She said, are you crazy? It’s one big opportunity for you. This time you need to fly. You’re fired!
She really pushed me to go. It’s funny, when I was about to leave, she told me to eat my vegetables, to dress warmly. I arrived in Hong Kong when I was still a child, so I guess she sees me as someone who hasn’t grown up.
You still go home to Hong Kong?
I still go home there. I still have my bed, and my teddy bear that’s almost 12 years old. I consider myself very lucky, very privileged. The kids are proud of me. The 15-year-old, he’s in the US. We’d Snapchat each other, he’d ask if I saw this or that article. I’d look at the time there, it’s 2 a.m.! Why are you not sleeping!
Returning to your hometown of Nueva Vizcaya you were hailed as a hero, someone who is inspiring other young people to not abandon their dreams. How do you take this all in?
I still feel uncomfortable when people tell me that. I’m not used to people admiring me because I'm just a kid on the block. My mother still yells at me when I'm being stupid and stubborn. I do not think about it because it’s bad for the ego. Ego kills creativity.
At this point it’s not about my story anymore, it’s about the people I photograph. I’ve done big projects and I want the spotlight to be on them, not with me. Every time I get interviewed I feel like I lose something about myself.
What about the talks you give? What do people want to know?
They want to know about my background. I give talks about documentary photography, street photography. Everything that I’ve learned, all the workshops from the fellowships, I try to share it. I talk about ethics, fact checking, the impact of the photographs you’re taking. Documentary photography is about impact. It’s not about being a savior. Most times when I’m taking a photograph people think I can save them. I’m very firm: I cannot save you, I want to save you but I cannot. I’m here to document whatever is happening, so either you allow me or don’t. I need to get their trust, need to get them to get used to my presence. There’s always a mistrust between people and journalists. Especially with these issues, they're sick of journalists who shoot them then wala ng pakialam.
I try my best whenever I’m done with a project, I print my photos and give it to them. I’m trying to give back something. It’s about honesty, and you don’t want your subject to feel like you exploited them. I always say that I don’t give you voices, I’m not your savior, but the most I can do is put a spotlight on your story, and hopefully people with the power to change the system see it and do something about it.
One of the subjects of your photographs was able to collect workers’ compensation after it was published, and another was able to fix her immigration papers after her story was read in the New York Times.
When I learned about that, I was really happy, there’s a purpose to my life! (laughs) Manong Rick scolded me. Why don’t you post the news [on Facebook], he says. I don’t need to. It’s something between me and the people I photograph and those involved. Although he does have a point, it’s meant to inspire people.
From street photography, you started focusing on social issues. Was there a turning point that made you realize this is what you wanted to do?
When I realized how lucky and privilege I am to be in a position to magnify migrant workers’ voices. I’m still considered a baby in the industry and until now i don't know which road I will take in the future. All I know is I want to keep telling stories specially stories of the invisible people.
Wala akong ka-alam alam when I started, but because I’m aware of that, I tried to learn as fast as I can. Honestly my phone is subscribed to [so many sites]. How do you send an email properly? Things I didn’t get to learn in school because I didn’t finish school. I’m teaching myself to do that. I was reading a 20-page contract last night, I’m going through it word for word. But I’ve already learned how to spot a bullshit contract from one that is fair.
An empty brain is a blind eye. I like reading. I’m trying to compensate for my lack of education.
I’m not used to people admiring me because I'm just a kid on the block. My mother still yells at me when I'm being stupid and stubborn. I do not think about it because it’s bad for the ego. Ego kills creativity.
ON BEING A MIGRANT WORKER
Are you still able to support your family back home?
I was able to buy a cabinet (laughs). There’s an empty room in our house in the province. I saved up for a bit and I had a built-in cabinet and bed made.
How many siblings do you have?
There’s one girl and one boy. The boy is in Hong Kong. We’re a family of migrant workers. We can never have a complete Christmas together. Not just us—that’s the typical family situation in the Philippines. There are 10 million overseas workers.
I gave a talk at the UN, and I mentioned the Philippines’ labor export policy which started during the time of Marcos. I said, my country is encouraging migration. After my talk, someone from the Philippines came up to me and said, that’s not true. I was like, what the fuck are you talking about? We have 10 million OFWs! Every time another country opens up to accepting workers, the government is happy. Why? You’re breaking families apart.
There’s a line that I sometimes cross, where I start sounding like an activist. I still don’t wear the photojournalist cap—I really care about these issues and I sound like an activist.
You’re pretty outspoken.
People call me feisty. Nagugulat sila, why am I like this? At the back of their minds, domestic worker, dapat meek sya, dapat submissive. I’m always outspoken about the issues I care about. If I am wrong I will apologize. If I know I’m right, I’m gonna tell you straight. Even as a domestic I was already like this. Even the kids were scared of me (laughs). I’ve earned their respect, they know they have to say please and thank you before I even do something for them.