Xyza Cruz Bacani catches people unaware, which is surely one of the secrets behind her powerful street photography.
As the Hong Kong-based documentary photographer walked to the front of a room full of San Francisco State journalism students on Feb. 26, her presence seemed understated at first.
The diminutive 31-year-old, dressed all in black, was a little frazzled from a hectic schedule that, over the previous weekend, brought her from London to New York then onto San Francisco to showcase her work at Photofairs SF.
But once she started speaking and displaying her images onto a large screen behind her, it took only a few moments to realize Bacani is a force to be reckoned with.
“I’m still a street photographer, a hunter,”
she told about 40 students.
Originally from the Philippines, Bacani a domestic helper nearly 10 years. Despite her dim prospects, she never gave up on her dream of being a professional photographer, and refined her skills every day by taking shots of people and scenes that caught her eye.
“There’s crippling self-doubt that will visit you at two in the morning,” she said. “Doubt is good, but don’t let it cripple you.”In 2014, she turned her lens to other migrant Filipino workers in Hong Kong who, unlike her, horribl abuse while suffering what Bacani calls “modern slavery.” documented the physical and emotional scars of women living in a shelter for abused domestic workers.
Winning documentary photographer Rick Rocamora came across her work on Facebook mentoring and connections.
Her photo essay of domestic workers appeared in the New York Times Lens Blog in 2014. Then in 2015, she received the prestigious Magnum Human Rights Fellowship, which landed her a CNN interview. That year she was also named one of the BBC’s “100 Women of 2015,” and she made Forbes Asia’s “30 Under 30.”
The stories Bacani told helped some of the victims fight for justice. One striking example was Shirley, a domestic worker who appeared in Bacani’s series showing back severe burn scars. Shirley’s employer had poured boiling soup on her, then refused her medical leave and fired her.
Shirley’s subsequent lawsuit was going nowhere until her story was featured during a CNN interview with Bacani. After that, Shirley won her case, and a -million-peso settlement.
While Shirley’s legal victory is uncommon, her story is not.
Bacani,a book that highlights social injustices suffered by migrant workers throughout Hong Kong, Singapore and New York. It’s titled, “We Are Like Air.”
“Migrant workers are like air, invisible but necessary,” Bacani said.
Sometimes being a human rights photographer makes a political lightning rod. Her recent series of images of Occupy Hong Kong protests were viewed as especially antagonizing by the notoriously secretive government of China.
She insists, however, that she had no political statements to make about the protests.
“I’m only there to document,” she said. Despite the challenges her elevated profile may bring, Bacani remains undaunted.
“You’ll meet a lot of people in your life who’ll say ‘It’s better to do this,’ or, ‘It’s better to do that,’” she said. “Be gracious, but follow your gut.”