“When we first met her, she would come around to the shelter and ask to document the situation inside,” Edwina Antonio-Santoyo says as we watch Xyza Cruz Bacani walk over to our December cover subjects to show them her photos. “She really believed in our advocacy for migrant workers’ rights, and she was so dedicated to getting the shots that she would squeeze into the beds of the residents, because there was no room inside the shelter and also so the residents feel that she is one of their own.”
Edwina is the executive director of Bethune House in Hong Kong, a shelter for distressed migrant workers of all nationalities. Their cause is championed by Xyza and Leo Selomenio, one of our cover subjects, in their respective capacities — Xyza as a photographer of international note, and Leo as an activist and organizer. “Xyza’s come so far. We are so proud of her,” Edwina says.
For the first two decades of her life, Xyza’s story echoed those of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who leave the country to find work abroad as domestic workers. Her parents, too, had worked abroad — her father as a construction worker in Saudi Arabia, and her mother as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. At just eight years of age, Xyza was tasked with taking care of her younger siblings back home in Nueva Vizcaya.
When she turned 19, Xyza joined her mother in Hong Kong, to work for the same household. They worked side by side for seven years — and in the meantime, Xyza discovered a talent for street photography while exploring the richly textured streets of Hong Kong. The photos caught veteran photojournalist Rick Rocamora’s eye. They only knew each other through social media at the time, but he was so taken by her talent that he asked permission to send her portfolio to the New York Times’ Lens blog.
The 2014 NYT article “Taking Care of People and Pictures in Hong Kong” blew the doors wide open for Xyza, earning her further accolades and attention from all over the globe. In the five years since the piece came out, Xyza has won a Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice fellowship, along with grants from the Pulitzer Center, the WMA Commission and Open Society Moving Walls. She’s also been commended by the Philippine House of Representatives, which wrote a resolution to honor her “great feats in photography”.
Of her growing list of international achievements, perhaps the one that is most emotionally resonant to her is the publication of We Are Like Air, a book of her photographs about migrant workers. The title comes from something she likes to say. “Migrant workers are invisible people. We are like air,” Xyza told the New York Times in a follow-up 2017 article. “People need us but they don’t see us. We exist to please them, to serve them, but they don’t really see us as part of the society. We have voices — it’s just that no one is listening.”
Though Xyza continues to do a lot of work for international news agencies, she is also careful to protect the work that she does for herself — the street photography that she first fell in love with, along with the documentary work on migrant workers that doubles as advocacy. And above all, she thinks of the impact that her story has on people back home. “It’s funny — most people dream of getting accolades abroad,” she says softly. “I crave for recognition at home.”