The Magnum Foundation announced its 2015 Human Rights Fellows last month. The seven recipients are: Basel Alyazouri, 19, Palestine; Xyza Cruz Bacani, 27, Philippines; Nour Kelze, 27, Syria; Sipho Mpongo, 21, South Africa; Chery Dieu Nalio, 33, Haiti; Anastasia Vlasova, 22, Ukraine; and Muyi Xiao, 23, China.
The goal of the fellowship is to provide a development platform for “young and emerging photographers, journalists, students and/or activists” who “are deeply committed to advancing human rights in their home countries.” Applicants must live outside of, and not have previously studied photography in, North America and Western Europe. The award provides both a scholarship for a six-week course at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and continuing professional support. The courses are taught by Magnum-associated photographer Susan Meiselas and Tisch professor Fred Ritchin.
Among this year’s fellows, Xyza Cruz Bacani has a particular closeness to her subjects: she document the lives, and often abuse, of domestic workers, while being a domestic worker herself. In a post last year on the New York Times‘ Lens blog, Kerri MacDonald described Bacani’s employer as fair, a woman who “pays her for overtime.” Yet the article quotes Bacani on her emotional identification with her subjects: “I can relate to their stories … Our job description is the same. It just happens that I’m luckier than them.”
Whether portraying a burned domestic worker filing an abuse complaint or a love-struck couple kissing in front of Hong Kong’s skyline, Bacani’s photographs are dynamic. More than catching a “decisive moment” of movement, they suggest a continuous scenario: implied past, captured present, likely future. Bacani is a master of the use of light, shadow, and hue. Shades of passing clouds, light filtered through rain, the neon of a subway’s glare merging with the yellow of streetlights, and the geometric light patterns created by buildings fashion an impression of a world continuously spinning. This fosters empathy with Bacani’s subjects — we seem to have happened upon them in the midst of their daily lives; the camera creates little interference.
Fellow Sipho Mpongo also has a remarkably unique eye. His portrayals of his home country of South Africa, its townships and private clubs alike, nonetheless suggest an outsider’s eye. There’s often an awkwardness to his subjects’ poses, a twisting or stiffness of the body; they seem to be performing identities with which they’re not entirely at ease — an appropriate portrayal of a state that’s still extremely racially and economically divided. A statement on his website discusses this theme of transitory identity:
The problem of personal identity arises from the beliefs that we can change in many ways throughout our lives and that these changes happen to the same person. But if we change, we’re different. So how is it possible for a person to change yet remain the same?
Each of the fellowship winners demonstrates concern for the particular human rights issues of his or her country or region. All use the camera as an empathetic, humanistic, and political tool.