Filipina Domestic Helper Makes A Name For Herself In Photography

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Xyza Cruz Bacani is a Filipina street photographer based in Hong Kong, known for her black-and-white photos of Hong Kong street life. Bacani grew up in Bamband, Nueva Vizcaya in the Philippines. Before leaving the Philippines, she studied nursing. It was during this time that her interest in photography first took root, although she couldn’t afford a camera at the time. In order to help earn funds for the education of her siblings, Bacani joined her mother in Hong Kong when she was 18.

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Working as a nanny for the same Chinese-Australian woman who employed her mother, one of Bacani’s tasks was caring for her boss’s seven grandchildren. A few years after she’d moved to Hong Kong, Bacani started taking photos with a Nikon D90 she purchased with money borrowed from her employer.

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With camera her in hand during her spare time, Bacani began prowling the streets of Hong Kong allowing her mood to determine her destination. She honed her photography skills by capturing various aspects of Hong Kong’s Chinese communities as well as the play of light and shadows between the city’s iconic buildings.

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Bacani was encouraged in her photography by her mentor, San Francisco-based photographer Rick Rocamora, who she met on a Filipino photographers’ group on Facebook.

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Bacani has been building a reputation through her striking photographs of ordinary life in Hong Kong. Among her various street images of Hong Kong society, Bacani has also covered the 2014 Hong Kong protests, and documented the lives of other domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Continuing to work as live-in helper, any extra cash she earns from overtime goes toward cameras, lenses and film. Although she loves photography, she says she’ll never leave her day job as “it pays very well.”

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Bacani has been featured in major international publications including the New York Times and Italian Vogue. In 2015, she was announced as a recipient of the 2015 Human Rights Fellowship by the Magnum Foundation, a prestigious scholarship that gave her the opportunity to study in an intensive, six-week-long program at New York University in New York.

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An Amateur’s Experiences With Street Photography

Street photo of young Japanese woman
Street photo of young Japanese woman in Akihabara at dawn

I’ve never specialized in any one genre of photography, which is probably why I consider myself as an amateur in all genres of photography. Portraiture, HDR, landscapes, light painting – I constantly switch from one to the other, and enjoy them all.

One constant is that wherever I happen to be, I always enjoy going out for a walk to see what I can capture with my camera. While the majority of photos I take on these walks include people, I don’t consider that to be a requirement. Neither do I try to focus only on taking shots that document something in particular. So, I suppose I’m actually talking more about photo walks than about true street photography.

Asian street photography
Street photography taken in Asia

So, why do it? I’ve found shooting on the street is a great way to hone your skills in being aware of what’s going on around you, test different camera settings, practice using different lens, learning to be quick, and forcing yourself to think about how to create a compelling image. And, best of all, you never know what you’re going to find.

One of the allures of shooting people on the street is the opportunity to capture candid moments. This allows you to portray honest human emotions, which can lend to creating a memorable photo.

Old Man's Dreams
Old man in winter in black & white

Of course, you have to deal with the innate hesitation we all have to taking a stranger’s photo. Will they get mad? Will they think you’re some sort of strange stalker? Ideally, you’ll be quick enough when you press the shutter release that they won’t even notice you – that’s how you get a real candid shot.

Thirsty in Delhi
Turbanned man drining water on the streets of Delhi

There are a few options you can use to get candid street shots. One is to go someplace where a lot of people are taking photos – a public event, or a park where a street performer is putting on a show. You’ll easily be able to take photos of people in the crowd without attracting a lot of attention. Another technique is to look for people who are so engrossed in whatever they are doing that they won’t notice you (someone feeding the birds in a park, for example).

A common ruse is to pretend you’re shooting something besides the person whose photo you want to take. An easy way of doing this is to set up a shot and allow the person to walk into the frame. If they notice you, just keep shooting even after they’ve passed by. Chances are, they’ll think they got in your way.

Teenage girl years
Teenage girl in a crowd

It’s just a personal opinion, but I don’t recommend using a telephoto lens to take candid shots of strangers. I’ll admit I tried this when I got my first telephoto lens as a gift, but the whole experience felt creepy and I gave it up immediately. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying it’s not for me.

Begin a ‘foreigner’ in all the countries where I shoot, it’s inevitable that I stand out and get noticed. This means some of the shots I get are of people looking directly at me. Sometimes this enhances the image, but other times (when they start ‘posing’), it weakens the shot.

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Street photography in Asia

When people notice that I’ve taken their photo, I always give them a big smile and offer to let them to look at the photo (sign language goes a long way here!). It’s always awkward to be caught taking someone’s photo, but so far I’ve never had any problem. It probably helps that I never take photos of people that purposely are unflattering – when they’re arguing, etc.

Exercising common sense and practicing common courtesy both go a long way into making amateur street photography a fun experience! The things you’ll learn, and the practice you’ll get in using your camera, both make it worth the time and effort.