Photography takes Filipino maid from Hong Kong to New York

Story highlights

  • Filipino maid Xyza Cruz Bacani has won a photography fellowship in New York
  • Attracted international attention with moving black and white street shots
  • Bacani moved to Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper when she was 19

Hong Kong (CNN)A domestic worker from the Philippines who moonlights as a photographer in Hong Kong will be leaving her job in May to pursue a dream career in New York.

Xyza Cruz Bacani, 27, has been selected as one of seven Human Rights Fellows by the Magnum Foundation. This summer, she will spend six weeks studying at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. The fellowship aims to give aspiring documentary photographers the skills and support to pursue socially conscious photography in their home countries.
    "My family was overjoyed when the news came in," Bacani wrote in an email while taking a quick break from babysitting. "My parents cried. Having their eldest to reach a dream is a big deal for people like us who have nothing."

    'Honest' portraits of migrant workers

    Bacani grew up in poverty in Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines. She left school at 19 to become a domestic worker in Hong Kong. Bacani has no formal training in photography but her black and white street scenes have captured the imagination of thousands through social media.
    Xyza Cruz Bacani
    "For her to get this fellowship will literally change her life -- not just her photography, but also her life. She may be able to leave domestic work for good," says Sim Chi Yin, a Beijing-based documentary photographer and 2010 Magnum Fellow.
    "She is uniquely placed to tell the story of her community, that of migrant workers," says Sim, who recommended Bacani for the fellowship.
    Bacani's first documentary project captured the stories of a group of women at Bethune House Migrant Women's Refuge, a shelter for abused migrant workers.
    At the shelter, the lines between Bacani and her subjects were blurred: Bacani's own status as a migrant worker helped her befriend the women and tell their stories through a series of honest portraits. When it was time to submit her application for the Magnum Foundation scholarship, Bacani turned to the women at Bethune to help her select and curate a set of photos.

    Life as a domestic worker

    Bacani is one of more than 320,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Her alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. most mornings. She serves her boss breakfast, cleans the apartment and takes care of six grandchildren when they visit after school. On her one day off each week, Bacani wanders the streets of Hong Kong with her camera in hand, ready to photograph.
    She feels bittersweet about leaving her job as a domestic worker.
    "My work as a domestic is a safe haven," she wrote. "At the end of the month, I feel secure that I can send my father money for his medicine or help my siblings."
    Yet she believes the Magnum Fellowship will push her to do her best work. She is looking forward learning under the mentorship of documentary photographer Susan Meiselas, and meeting the other fellows from Ukraine, Haiti, Syria, China, South Africa and the Palestinian territories.
    After the six week course at NYU, Bacani hopes to find another fellowship that will allow her to extend her stay in New York and continue her goal of becoming a photojournalist.
    "She definitely has a very strong eye," says Sim. "Even those working as photographers don't have the discipline to take photos daily. She puts some of us to shame, honestly. Even the snaps she takes on a daily basis are pretty magical."