Photographer Xyza Bacani’s new Hong Kong exhibition is on the theme of human trafficking. Unlike the images used to illustrate news stories, such as the Syrians risking their lives to escape to Europe, or the mass graves of trafficking victims discovered near the Thai-Malaysian border last year, the photos Bacani, a Filipino former domestic helper in Hong Kong, has shot avoid direct depictions of the horror and despair of an evil trade. Instead, they focus on the strength and tenacity of those who have survived.
The black-and-white photos in the “Modern Slavery” exhibition were taken since 2015 in New York, Hong Kong, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. The subjects are all victims of human trafficking – people from Asia who agreed to pay a middleman an amount they couldn’t afford in return for a job in a wealthy country. When they get to their destination, the work, the salary and their immigration status are very different from what was agreed and – like, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, the Indonesian domestic helper physically abused by her Hong Kong employer – they often end up in debt bondage and, in many cases, without the legal right to work.
The images taken in New York were the earliest in the series. That was where Bacani studied photography with a scholarship from the Magnum Foundation, after a decade working as a domestic helper. Some of the images are startling in their ordinariness: smiling women going about their daily lives as domestic helpers, as mothers, as managers of small businesses, their stories supplemented by simple captions.
“These are not the typical, terrible images you see in the media. I think that when an image is too much, people look away. I don’t want people to look away. I want them to wonder, to question, how is this a picture of trafficking?”
She says the people she spoke to want to stay in the U.S. to realise the American dream. “They want to improve their economic lives and help their families. I chose these images because I want to make the point that victims of trafficking do not have to look sad, damaged and miserable. These survivors often stay in America on a T visa, after the authorities determined they were trafficked. They need to feed their families back home, so they try and survive even though they went through a terrible ordeal,” Bacani says.
“People who see these photographs often say that the subjects don’t look like they were trafficked, but that’s because there is no one face of human trafficking,” she says.
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News story from South China Morning Post.