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Esquire (Philippines) - - THIS WAY IN -

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ESQUIRE: So you’ve got a show in St. Louis, a Pulitzer Gen­der Lens con­fer­ence, and a grant for your first book about mo­bil­ity, plus your

Mod­ern Slav­ery exhibit mov­ing around to sev­eral spa­ces. It’s a very busy year for you!

XYZA CRUZ BACANI: Nakak­pagod. I re­al­ized I have only five T-shirts

(laughs). I do en­joy it, I re­ally get bored when I don’t work. I was used to work­ing ev­ery day, now I have more free time and I’m not com­fort­able with it. I try to find work, then I over­book my­self. I need to re­mind my­self, I have a book to do! Take it slow.

ESQ: You also re­ceived a grant from WMA Comis­sion to con­tinue a project you’re work­ing on in the Philip­pines. What’s it about?

XCB: It’s about how ed­u­ca­tion can bridge the gap for com­mu­ni­ties in war-torn ar­eas. It’s solutions jour­nal­ism—which is not just about the prob­lem, but also a so­lu­tion that can be adapted all over the world. Some­times good sto­ries are not eas­ily pub­lished. It doesn’t sell— sex [and] poverty sells, but not these kinds of pos­i­tive sto­ries. I started the project in 2015, but I want to dig deeper. It’s a mul­ti­me­dia project, a heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity.

ESQ: You also work in video?

XCB: That’s the good thing about the Mag­num foun­da­tion fel­low­ship. I went in in­no­cent, and came out a dif­fer­ent per­son. In six weeks I learned how to do video, edit, au­dio, nar­ra­tive… In this in­dus­try you need to adapt or die. You can’t be just a one-trick per­son. A lot of pres­sure, but that’s why you’re in this in­dus­try.

ESQ: Speak­ing of pres­sure, there’s been a lot of con­tro­versy lately in the world of pho­to­jour­nal­ism. [Ear­lier this year, award-win­ning pho­to­jour­nal­ist Sou­vid Datta ad­mit­ted to doc­tor­ing and stag­ing many of this pho­tos, caus­ing a firestorm of con­tro­versy on the eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of pho­to­jour­nal­ists. -ed.]

XCB: I was re­ally sad­dened by that. The in­dus­try is small. Ev­ery­one knows Sou­vid Datta was work­ing on what project. We had a lot in com­mon—we’re both Pulitzer grantees, PDN 30, Mag­num Foun­da­tion,

maram­ing con­nec­tion. I would’ve met him in June, he was sup­posed to be on the Pulitzer panel, but they took him out. I feel bad for him, but in my own opin­ion, if some­one had men­tored him and trained him, maybe things would’ve turned out dif­fer­ently.

ESQ: On the other hand, you were men­tored well.

XCB: When that news came out, I was re­ally grate­ful to all my men­tors, my elders. When I was just start­ing, they pointed out the im­por­tance of ethics. If I was in some­body’s sit­u­a­tion and I was be­ing pho­tographed, would I like it? Put your­self in that sit­u­a­tion. Pho­tog­ra­phy is a priv­i­lege, it al­ways has been. Be­cause once you’ve shot some­thing, it’s like you’re hold­ing on to it. You’re not leav­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence.

ESQ: Who do you consider your men­tors?

XCB: Rick Ro­camora, Susan Meise­las, Robin Moyer…I have quiet men­tors who don’t want to be men­tioned but I’m in con­tact with all the time. Fred Ritchin, David Gon­za­lez. If I don’t know some­thing, I’m not scared to ask. I’d rather be known as some­one who asked ques­tions rather than some­one who just as­sumed.

ESQ: Rick Ro­camora was the one who sent your pho­tos to The New York Times Lens Blog. Did you know him at the time?

XCB: No, only on Face­book. It’s a funny one. He said, I will try to send your pho­tos to pub­li­ca­tions. I did not dream of this. Life was good al­ready, I had a good job, I was help­ing my fam­ily, I was with my mother. I re­ally love pho­tog­ra­phy as it is. And he said, NYT will con­tact you. I was like, OK. I was so ig­no­rant. My world re­volved around my job and the chil­dren, so I didn’t think about the im­pli­ca­tions. Then I did the in­ter­view with [NYT photo editor] Kerri MacDonald. When the ar­ti­cle came out so many peo­ple started con­tact­ing me. I was so stressed! I never re­al­ized the im­pact, but it was huge, it opened the door in so many ways. But I worked hard, that’s what peo­ple don’t re­al­ize, they think it was just handed to me. I was with James Estrin of NYT, we were edit­ing my Sin­ga­pore story. I said, I owe NYT my ca­reer. He was re­ally nice, he said, yes, we pub­lished you, but you charged on. We opened the door and you just went in, that’s what makes you dif­fer­ent. I’m still al­ways grate­ful to NYT, they could have just said no to my story.

ESQ: At what point did you de­cide you were ready to com­mit your­self full-time to pho­tog­ra­phy and can quit your job?

XCB: When I got fired! At first I didn’t want to go to New York when I got the Mag­num Hu­man Rights fel­low­ship. What about my job, how will I help my fam­ily? One in­come will be lost. You know how my em­ployer found out? From the news­pa­per. She called me right away, why did you not tell me? I said, I’m not sure I’m go­ing to ac­cept it. She said, are you crazy? It’s one big op­por­tu­nity for you. This time you need to fly. You’re fired! She re­ally pushed me to go. It’s funny, when I was about to leave, she told me to eat my veg­eta­bles, to dress warmly. I ar­rived in Hong Kong when I was still a child, so I guess she sees me as some­one who hasn’t grown up.

ESQ: Re­turn­ing to your home­town of Nueva Viz­caya you were hailed as a hero, some­one who is in­spir­ing other young peo­ple to not aban­don their dreams. How do you take this all in?

XCB: I still feel un­com­fort­able when peo­ple tell me that. I’m not used to peo­ple ad­mir­ing me be­cause I’m just a kid on the block. My mother

still yells at me when I’m be­ing stupid and stub­born. I do not think about it be­cause it’s bad for the ego. Ego kills cre­ativ­ity.

At this point it’s not about my story any­more, it’s about the peo­ple I pho­to­graph. I’ve done big projects and I want the spot­light to be on them, not on me. Ev­ery time I get in­ter­viewed I feel like I lose some­thing about my­self.

ESQ: What about the talks you give? What do peo­ple want to know?

XCB: They want to know about my back­ground. I give talks about doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy, street pho­tog­ra­phy. Ev­ery­thing that I’ve learned, all the work­shops from the fel­low­ships, I try to share it. I talk about ethics, fact check­ing, the im­pact of the pho­to­graphs you’re tak­ing. Doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy is about im­pact. It’s not about be­ing a sav­ior. Most times when I’m tak­ing a pho­to­graph peo­ple think I can save them. I’m very firm: I can­not save you, I want to save you but I can­not. I’m here to doc­u­ment what­ever is hap­pen­ing, so ei­ther you al­low me or don’t. I need to get their trust, need to get them to get used to my pres­ence. There’s al­ways a mis­trust be­tween peo­ple and jour­nal­ists. Es­pe­cially with these is­sues, they’re sick of jour­nal­ists who shoot them then wala ng pakialam.

I try my best when­ever I’m done with a project, I print my pho­tos and give it to them. I’m try­ing to give back some­thing. It’s about hon­esty, and you don’t want your sub­ject to feel like you ex­ploited them. I al­ways say that I don’t give you voices, I’m not your sav­ior, but the most I can do is put a spot­light on your story, and hope­fully peo­ple with the power to change the sys­tem see it and do some­thing about it.

ESQ: One of the sub­jects of your pho­to­graphs was able to col­lect work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion af­ter it was pub­lished, and an­other was able to fix her im­mi­gra­tion pa­pers af­ter her story was read in the New York Times.

XCB: When I learned about that, I was re­ally happy, there’s a pur­pose to my life! (Laughs) Manong Rick scolded me. Why don’t you post the news [on Face­book], he says. I don’t need to. It’s some­thing be­tween me and the peo­ple I pho­to­graph and those in­volved. Al­though he does have a point, it’s meant to in­spire peo­ple.

ESQ: From street pho­tog­ra­phy, you started fo­cus­ing on so­cial is­sues. Was there a turn­ing point that made you re­al­ize this is what you wanted to do?

XCB: When I re­al­ized how lucky and priv­i­leged I was to be in a po­si­tion to mag­nify mi­grant work­ers’ voices. I’m still con­sid­ered a baby in the in­dus­try and un­til now I don’t know which road I will take in the fu­ture. All I know is I want to keep telling sto­ries spe­cially sto­ries of the in­vis­i­ble peo­ple. Wala akong ka-alam alam when I started, but be­cause I’m aware of that, I tried to learn as fast as I can. Hon­estly my phone is sub­scribed to [so many sites]. How do you send an email prop­erly? Things I didn’t get to learn in school be­cause I didn’t fin­ish school. I’m teach­ing my­self how to do that. I was read­ing a 20-page con­tract last night, and I’m go­ing through it word for word. But I’ve al­ready learned how to spot a bull­shit con­tract from one that is fair. An empty brain is a blind eye… I like read­ing. I’m try­ing to com­pen­sate for my lack of ed­u­ca­tion.

ESQ: Are you still able to sup­port your fam­ily back home?

XCB: I was able to buy a cab­i­net (laughs). There’s an empty room in our house in the prov­ince. I saved up for a bit and I had a built-in cab­i­net and bed made.

ESQ: How many sib­lings do you have?

XCB: There’s one girl and one boy. The boy is in Hong Kong. We’re a fam­ily of mi­grant work­ers. We can never have a com­plete Christ­mas to­gether. Not just us—that’s the typ­i­cal fam­ily sit­u­a­tion in the Philip­pines. There are ten mil­lion over­seas work­ers. I gave a talk at the UN, and I men­tioned the Philip­pines’ la­bor ex­port pol­icy which started dur­ing the time of Mar­cos. I said, my coun­try is en­cour­ag­ing mi­gra­tion. Af­ter my talk, some­one from the Philip­pines came up to me and said, that’s not true. I was like, what the fuck are you talk­ing about? We have ten mil­lion OFWs! Ev­ery time an­other coun­try opens up to ac­cept­ing work­ers, the gov­ern­ment is happy. Why? You’re break­ing fam­i­lies apart. There’s a line that I some­times cross, where I start sound­ing like an ac­tivist. I still don’t wear the pho­to­jour­nal­ist cap—I re­ally care about these is­sues and I sound like an ac­tivist.

ESQ: You’re pretty out­spo­ken.

XCB: Peo­ple call me feisty. Nagugu­lat sila, why am I like this? At the back of their minds, do­mes­tic worker, da­pat meek siya, da­pat sub­mis­sive. I’m al­ways out­spo­ken about the is­sues I care about. If I am wrong, I will apol­o­gize. If I know I’m right, I’m gonna tell you straight. Even as a do­mes­tic I was al­ready like this. Even the kids were scared of me

(laughs). I’ve earned their re­spect, they know they have to say please and thank you be­fore I even do some­thing for them.

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