The exhibition of the “Apples for Sale” photo project at the Goethe-Institut Cyprus has received a great response even though the subject is Indonesian housemaids in Hong Kong. How do you explain such a huge interest in such a distant topic?
I am very happy with the great response and the fine cooperation of the Goethe-Institut Cyprus. The wonderful idea of presenting my work together with the impressive film about Filipino domestic workers in Cyprus by Maren Wickwire came from Karin Varga, the director of the Goethe-Institut Cyprus. I believe the reason for the exhibition’s success is linked to the situations that domestic workers face in Cyprus. Although Hong Kong is far away the lives of working migrant women there and here are similar in many ways. Sometimes it’s easier to become involved in a sensitive subject if access takes place via a detour. The exhibition also allows the viewer a change of perspective, since it does not only feature the housemaids from my point of view, but the women themselves tell their own stories through image and text.
Do you see any parallels between the lives of housemaids in Hong Kong and in Cyprus – or perhaps even worldwide?
The initial problems for women leaving their families behind to earn money as migrant workers abroad are very similar around the globe. The circumstances to which they are exposed on site differ greatly. Discrimination, disdain, vulnerability and exploitation are almost certainly commonplace for all domestic workers. In addition to this Hong Kong, currently the most expensive city in the world, has an extreme lack of space. Many of the women are forced to sleep on narrow mats next to the washing machine or in the hallway! The luckier ones sleep in a windowless three metre square chamber. Living conditions for domestic workers is the most precarious in the Arab world – they work under slave-like conditions and the amount suffering abuse is beyond imagination. I cannot judge the working conditions of Cypriot housemaids but it is a fact that Cyprus has one of the lowest wages for foreign domestic workers in Western Europe with a monthly salary of just €309.
How long does it take to build up enough trust to enter this parallel world as an outsider?
For this particular work, on the one hand it took a very long time because domestic workers in Hong Kong are only allowed to leave the house one day a week, usually on Sundays. In addition, they have to live in the employer’s house and must not take anyone back. On the other hand Indonesian women are generally very open-minded, curious and keen to integrate and so welcomed me very quickly. I was there for four months in all for the main part of the work. That sounds like a long time but I had no contacts whatsoever and had only sixteen Sundays to meet the women.
At what point during this investigation did the borders blur between observation and sympathy?
In many of my projects I step out of the purely observational role and become part of the action which was especially the case with my work on eating disorders. During the production of Apples for Sale I played many roles. I was an observer whilst at the same time being observed by the women themselves. For every image that I took there is another photo of myself that was taken by the women. There are many videos showing me at work and all that goes with it circulating among the social networks of the Indonesian housemaid community. The passion for photography shown by the community also ensured that I often involuntary changed my role from observer to assigned photographer. The medium of photography enables the women to create their own realities that can be shown in their home country via social networks.
What effect can such a project, between art and photo reportage, still have nowadays in our age of barrages of images?
Personally, I still believe in the power of image and text. But the answer to the question, what kind of impact this power may have, I would rather leave to the audience.
You have visited Cyprus several times to open the annual exhibition of young German photography “Gute Aussichten” in the Goethe-Institut Nicosia. Did the island give you any inspiration for new projects?
Cyprus is a very special place for me. I literally fell in love with the island on my first visit five years ago. Every time I board a plane to Larnaca I feel a sense of excited enthusiasm. Cyprus has got a lot of stories, faces and moods. If ever a chance for an artist’s residence was presented to me, I would never know where to start because of the huge amount of inspiring contrasts.