Silence fills one of the rooms of the Manila House in Taguig City a little past six o’clock in the evening. A few minutes ago, the hallway outside was filled with joyful chitchat of a crowd that seemed like they have been friends—or acquaintances, at least—for some time. Moving from one small circle to another was Cara Wilson, co-founder of For the Women Foundation. It is to benefit their cause, I would learn, that this intimate gathering is organized.
As the waiters continue to serve wine to an anticipating audience, a crowd which includes Lizzie Zobel de Ayala, Cara goes onstage to start the program. Already in front, and sitting on opposite ends of one couch, are Xyza Cruz Bacani, former domestic worker turned internationally-renowned photographer, and Jaime Zobel de Ayala, Philippine tycoon. Their conversation tonight is an exhibit in itself. But it is the hauntingly intimate photographs of Xyza that line a wall in the room that comprise tonight’s topic of conversation.
The evening’s event is called Changing the Narrative: An Intimate Conversation on Transformation and Photography, aimed to give a peek into the life and passion of Bacani, a woman who has transformed behind the camera.
JAZA sits cross-legged and is elegantly composed in a suit. He is fascinated by his interviewee—in fact “fascinating” is a word often uttered by JAZA to describe several of Xyza’s answers to his questions. Most of the time, he talks directly to her, just her, asking questions. She answers him straightforwardly, and then faces her audience when she wants to expound on a particular idea. He injects his sense of humor; she does, too. He is adept, precise, charming (he actually began the program with an apology to the audience for not being his father who is a photographer, and who would have been the obvious choice for interviewer). “After people approached me more than ten times [asking if my father would conduct the conversation], I thought I’d just give a general apology.” His quip made the audience laugh. Xyza’s humor is raw, a little diffident, charming. She calls interest to an excerpt from her book by introducing it as a “sexy story,” when it talks about her mother’s journey to becoming a domestic helper.
Once in a while, before asking a question, JAZA would read research notes on Xyza.
Xyza is quick on the take with her answers—often, it’s storytelling rather than exposition. And like her photographs, taken with utmost sensitivity, curiosity, and honesty, Xyza expresses sentiments through words mostly unfettered. “I’m always like this,” she says tepidly about her candid nature. “I think it’s because I don’t open my mouth that much. But when I do, there’s no filter.”
JAZA: How did you get the name Xyza?
Xyza: I have two creative parents. We’re part of this indigenous group in Nueva Vizcaya. It’s disappearing now, it’s called the Isinai. We have our own dialect. So my parents are very creative in naming their children in such a way that they named my sister Sharila. In our local dialect, it means, same old shit. ’Cause it’s another girl.
JAZA: How big a group is it? How many are people left?
Xyza: There’s only 12,000 of us left in the country. The culture is disappearing. I’m the last generation who can speak and understand the language, unfortunately.
JAZA: You mentioned in an interview—I think it was a TED talk in Hong Kong—when you were very young, you used to sit with your brother and look out of a window, and you’d look at the TV in the house next door. You watched TV that way. And I thought it was fascinating. Number one, it was almost like a painting. Number two, how in a way, you were looking through a window in another person’s home. It might have been the beginning of this sensibility that you have to other people’s situation. And it’s sharing, I guess, the life of another person. Can you tell us about your early childhood?
Xyza: I have a book. I think I wanna share a very sexy background story by reading a page of the book. I think I’m smarter when I write it down. ’Cause right now, I’m nervous. There’s a lot of you. I didn’t expect this. So anyway, I wanna start with this one.
“Georgia stepped out of her house quietly, catching one last glimpse of her sleeping children. She did not wake them because they might start crying, and she would not have the strength to leave. Georgia traveled to Manila airport with her husband that night. It was November 1996. With only a small bag, and 20 Philippine pesos in her purse, about 4 cents in US dollars, Georgia was on her way to Singapore, where she would become a domestic worker. She was to stay there as a tourist while she waited for the employment agency to find work for her. This was illegal, but she was willing to take the risk. Two years later, Georgia left Singapore and came to Hong Kong, where she has since continued to work as a domestic helper.
“She saw her children once every two years, when she went home on vacation. Her children grew up without a mother. And Georgia got to know them only through brief visits, phone calls, and photographs. Georgia is my mother.
“This is my story, as well as the story of my mother and millions of women who have become foreign domestic workers, leaving behind their children in their home countries. Our stories have been told countless times by others. But more often than not, they only scratch the surface of our experience. This time, we will tell our own story. It’s a story of love, family, and sacrifice.”
So my very sexy story started with my mother. And I was eight years old at that time. So at eight, she left me with a responsibility of being a mother to two other siblings. They were five and three. So that time, I had a very big gap of memories. I think the one that you watched, these are the very vivid memories that I have. Watching television with my brother, watching other people eat ice cream. Basically, poverty bonded us. My memories of childhood were very sporadic. I don’t really remember a lot because I was so busy surviving and making sure that my siblings survived as well.
JAZA: In our chat, I was fascinated by a conversation we had, you talked a great deal about your mother and the influence she had on you. But you also talked about your father, Xyza, and the love that you have for him. And how he stayed behind and took care of you and your siblings. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Xyza: When I was writing the book — you know it took us two years to put together; it’s a collection of images from 2013 to 2018 — one of my greatest fears was people emasculating my father, you know, because they switched roles. My mother was the one working, meanwhile my father stayed behind and took care of us. So my fear is people will see him differently. That he’s not man enough to be able to provide for his family. So I’m scared that people might say mean things, you know the world can be mean. And as much as possible, I wanna protect my parents from the unkindness of other people. Then, I realized that I need to show the world that it takes a great man to be married to a woman who’s not by his side [and hasn’t been] for 26 years. Basically, one is living in the Philippines taking care of us, the other one was in Singapore and Hong Kong. And my father never cheated. He invested the money wisely that my mother was sending us. And they’re still in love. So I think it’s one of the greatest love stories that I’ve ever witnessed.
JAZA: A phrase that I love, I guess, in the various things I’ve read about you is that you described your mother as a person who basically lived in the confines of a wall. She worked hard, she worked seven days a week. But then you began to see Hong Kong through a different light, through photography, and that way you became her eyes. How did that come about? How did you discover that passion?
Xyza: When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I didn’t have a very good relationship with my mother, because she left when I was eight. And as a growing girl, all these changes were happening to me, and I didn’t have a mom when [they did]. When I had my first period, I thought I was dying. These little things that happened in my life, when I thought I was dying. When I had my first crush, I didn’t have a mom to talk to. So our relationship was really not good. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, and she was becoming a mother to me, I was like, “Who are you? You were away for like half of my life, so why are you trying to be a mom now?”
’Cause I never understood the reason why she left. I thought she left because she wanted a better life for herself. But then, as we stayed together, as we worked together, I noticed that she never really went out. She worked seven days a week. Her life was confined within four walls. She would only go to the market and go back home. I mean, she’s been in Hong Kong for 22 years, and only just learned how to use the MTR last year. That’s how many sacrifices she has made. She never really saw Hong Kong. And so I picked up a camera, and realized, why not show it to her? Because our relationship was getting better, I felt so guilty about being a bad daughter. So I decided, ‘Why not show her Hong Kong through my photography?’ So she was the main reason that I became a photographer. I became her eyes.
JAZA: What was the first camera that you ever bought?
Xyza: It was an SLR. I can’t mention the brand, I have a contract. Haha!
JAZA: I’ve seen your photographs. I’ve looked through them before meeting you. You have a sensibility, an eye to emotional connections, the way people interact. Did you always see people that way? Was it something that flowed naturally into your photography, or did you cultivate it as you looked around?
Xyza: A lot of people say that I’m a natural, but I don’t believe in that, to be honest. It’s not a very popular opinion. Because I think how I see the world is a collection of the things that I consume. I love reading books. I love watching movies. I’m always alone; I’m an introvert. I mean, now I’m good at these events—I got trained. Haha! It’s more like, when I was working as a domestic worker, I spent time consuming other kinds of art. So when I started photography, I think it affected the way I saw the world. And I’m always curious about other people. I’m an observer. Because I’m not a social butterfly.
JAZA: That transition from photography, seeing people, and then beginning to see them in a context, I guess, in a social situation — are there elements there that began to dawn on you?
Xyza: I don’t take things just like that. I need to know why it is happening. Because context is king. Everything we do in life, there’s a reason for it. And so as a photographer, I try to find that reason why things are happening. Because if you know the why, then the hows will be easier, right? Like if we can answer these questions, then maybe we can find solutions to these problems. So that’s how my practice as a documentary photographer is. It’s anchored on curiosity.
JAZA: I think that’s maybe why we feel a connection to your photography because there is substance there beyond the image. I think maybe it’s something that you’re picking up as you take the photographs and it’s clearly visible. You have an eye that’s very particular. But that brings me maybe to one last issue before you go to your photography. That is your visit to Marawi. It’s a part of the country that means a great deal to us, yet so many of us feel so distant from everything that’s happening there. I think it might be interesting for everyone to hear about your own thoughts, the people that you’ve met, the feelings that you have. I had the good fortune of seeing the drone shots. [To audience] Xyza is moving to drone photography.
Xyza: I have this project. It’s called, “Education as a Weapon.” It’s not done yet, but I’ve already gathered all the materials. [It’s called] “Education as a Weapon” because I believe that education can empower children or people. But it can also be a weapon that can be used when it’s not regulated properly. It can be used to radicalize children. I’ve been doing that project since 2015. I’ve been in and out of Mindanao. I actually stay more there than here in Manila. I have a very fortunate relationship with the people there. They welcome me into their homes. I think the reason why I keep on going is because I wanna show the people of the north that there’s more to Mindanao. It’s beautiful. The people are wonderful. Abu Sayyaf, those terrorist acts, don’t represent Mindanao. There’s more to it.
JAZA: Aside from your photography, are there other forms of art that you seek to develop, Xyza? For example, you started out as a photographer, but you write really well. Do you see an evolution in your art? Or are you experimenting with new ideas?
Xyza: I’m experimenting with ways to present photographs. I love doing installations now. I have a show in New York this coming May, where I’m doing lots of installation.
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