In her most recent exhibition, Apples for Sale, which is on view at Foam (Amsterdam) until December 16, the lives of Indonesian domestic female workers are put on display. This time, however, it’s not themselves through the Facebook-live function, but in a study of their daily lives, realized by German-American artist and photographer Rebecca Sampson, who’s been following them for six months to discover their hopes, fears, and thoughts – and has even discovered that there’s a large percentage of them who’ve engaged in lesbian relationships. We discover the reasons behind this, and some other secrets.
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Lesbian sub-cultures, parallel egos and domestic workers rights. You certainly have sparked our attention with your new photodocumentary series, Apples for Sales, about the lives of female domestic workers in Hong Kong. Before we dig into it, give us some details about yourself.
I was born 1984 to an American father and a German mother in Göttingen (Germany). My love for photography developed very early on, when my father gave me one of his old Leica cameras out of his collection and taught me the basics. After going through some difficult times in my early twenties and struggling with an eating disorder, I found myself reconnecting to the world through the use of photography and started creating a body of work on the topic. This work developed in very surprising directions. For example, right now, I am collaborating with a group of therapists on the development of a photography-based eating disorder prevention project, and I would like to work further in this field to establish a photography-based method for the treatment of these disorders.
Since then, I have been hooked and obsessed with various social topics and sometimes use the camera as a means to gain access to worlds that seem inaccessible. I realized early on that I want to use my photography to tell stories that move and inspire people and potentially challenge their perspectives on certain themes. I have a strong sense of justice, I am driven to counter social injustice, and I’m utterly fascinated by human beings and their inner worlds.
It all started in 2013, when you went on a visit to Hong Kong, where you discovered hundreds of labor migrants covering the parks on Sundays. What were they doing there? And why did you feel a need to respond to it as a photographer?
When I was in Hong Kong the first time, I was just travelling and exploring. I was living by coincidence right next to one of the major parks where Indonesian domestic workers gather on their day off. By law, the maids are entitled to one day off per week. This is usually Sunday, which has come to be considered the employer’s family day, a day on which the maids are expected to spend their time outside of the apartment. Homeless for a day, thousands of these women and girls roam public places and occupy parks, squares, pedestrian bridges, tunnels and traffic islands. Cardboard boxes are transformed into walls, and plastic sheets become picnic blankets. All of their emotional needs have to be met on this one day each week.
When I saw them living their rare private life totally in public, I was very curious and immediately started my research and applied for a scholarship with the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Literary Colloquium Berlin. I was lucky to receive these awards, which allowed me to return to Hong Kong and begin the project. I have also been lucky to be an artist in residence supported by the Goethe-Institut, Hong Kong.
You have already exhibited internationally with several photo-documentary series over the past few years. This time, through the Foam museum in Amsterdam. How do you approach projects like these? How does a photo documentary series develop?
I sometimes wish there was a repetitive structure to this but it is totally different each time, and beginning the process remains a challenge. Whenever I think a topic is going to be really difficult, it turns out to be easier than the projects where I don’t see any problems ahead. Apples for Sale was in some ways quite tough, as there is not much research and you can only meet the maids once a week. So, I had to come to terms with the complexity, the inconsistency, the absurdity and the brutality of the topic myself while trying to figure out what is actually happening there.
On the other hand, it was easier than I thought: these women are extremely open, excited about photography, generous and very easily approachable. I usually try to immerse myself as much as possible into the world of the people I work with and try to anticipate their emotions. I pick up emotions very easily and it is not that unusual for me to silently cry behind my camera. While working, I sometimes have to remind myself to actually compose my pictures, as I am so absorbed by my topic and the message I want to share that I sometimes forget that I am a photographer.
“I want to use my photography to tell stories that move and inspire people and potentially challenge their perspectives on certain themes.”
Tell us a little about meeting these women. What was it like following them around? And how long did this go on for?
The daily life of an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong is extremely harsh. For years after their arrival, they live with their employers in the most cramped conditions imaginable, often having no sleeping quarters of their own – privacy is an unattainable luxury. The maids are cooped-up in exhausting and miserable working conditions, are poorly paid and have little free time. Exploitation, discrimination and animosity from employers are their daily fare.
All this is fueled even more through dubious business practices of private placement agencies (responsible for connecting the maids to employers), whose fees amount to, on average, a third of a maid’s annual salary. In addition, the women are subject to the willfulness of their employers, who can terminate employment at any time, with only a month’s notice, after which the maid has just two weeks to either find new employment or be expelled from the country. The fear of losing their employment makes these women very cautious and prone to pushing their own boundaries of accepting abusive behavior.
That sounds horrible, inhuman even…
One of the big challenges for me as a photographer was that there was hardly ever any opportunity for privacy, as the women are not allowed to bring people back into the homes of the employers. I believe that the sense of intimacy in a photograph is connected to a somehow private moment. And it is hard to reach that when other people from the community are permanently watching. Over the past two years, I’ve spent six months in Hong Kong working on this project, and only very few of the many couples I met have had the opportunity to close a door behind them on their day off.
Some of them rent small shipping containers in shanty towns at the edge of the city, which they lovingly decorate and spend their Sundays in. And these locations are perhaps where I achieved my most intimate and beautiful photos. The process was made more difficult by the fact that I could only really work on Sundays – six months may sound a long time, but not when nothing is happening on six out of seven days.
At one point, you pretended to be an employer yourself to obtain passport photos of the domestic workers. Tell us a little about this.
Since it was really difficult to find employers who would talk to me, I decided to approach the agencies, which are spread all over the city. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and everyday life without the domestic workers would simply collapse. It is a very normal thing to have a housemaid over there, and with a monthly payment of roughly five hundred euros, you don’t have to be very well off to employ one.
Officially, all domestic workers in Hong Kong live under the same law. But numbers from Amnesty International and other NGOs show that Indonesian workers are the most vulnerable. They seem to have a 70.5% higher chance of ending up in forced labor in Hong Kong compared to, for example, Filipino domestic workers. I believe the reasons for this are multilayered, as most sub-topics in this work.
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Preparing dinner in the toilet/kitchen - 5sqm apartment shared by 2 housemaids in Hong Kong, 2017
So, what happened when you finally contacted the agencies? What was it like?
When I pretended to look for a domestic worker myself and told the agency about my plan to let her work 24/7, they immediately pointed towards an Indonesian maid on a first-time contract, as they are the least informed about their rights and often don’t speak English. They even showed me, totally unashamed, paperwork with racist categories of what to expect when hiring an Indonesian compared to a Filipino. They usually are marketed as ‘highly obedient, honest, flexible in holiday arrangements, value the male more than the female’.
Filipino workers were the first in Hong Kong and have established themselves since the 1970s; they are quite political, very well-informed about their rights, speak fluent English and have some support from the church. The Indonesian domestic workers started coming to Hong Kong only in the 1990s and the community is very isolated. There is not enough support for them.
In the press release, they are portrayed as being “far from home and in a completely female subculture”, making them “develop an ambiguous sexual identity”. Some would say that this is a rather controversial statement. How does one ‘just’ gain a fluid sexuality? And, “It’s not a sexual orientation, but a fashion” is a comment we get from one of the domestic workers, Karty, on display in your exhibition. Can you explain what she meant by this?
First off, I am a photographer and an artist, rather than a psychologist. So, I cannot claim to have any expertise on how identities develop precisely, and there may be better people than me to answer the question of how a fluid sexual identity might come about. What I do is report what I see, hear and experience along with my own personal interpretations of that. And I can testify as to the reality of the fluid sexuality along with other people’s explanations and interpretations of it (from both inside and outside the maids’ community).
If you spend some time within the Indonesian community in Hong Kong, it becomes very obvious very quickly that heteronormativity is not an unquestioned norm among them. According to the estimations of researchers who have looked into this, between twenty and forty per cent of Hong Kong’s housemaids have experienced lesbian relationships. This is a considerably higher percentage than in other social groups, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
Could you please elaborate more on this?
One researcher who I have turned to in order to shape my understanding of the phenomena I witnessed is Amy Sim, who is assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She conducted the most detailed research there in the field of the sexual identity of Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong. And it may be helpful if I quote her a little:

“Indonesian women’s lesbian relationships in Hong Kong are divided into masculinized and feminine women, with the former playing the social role of men. The case of Indonesian lesbian women in Hong Kong cannot be understood as one of simply resisting heterosexuality because of deeply embedded gender hierarchies that become manifest on the bodies of women who love other women ‘as men’, or of femme women who seek out tomboys with whom they can behave ‘as women’.
In this lesbianscape, the principle of heterosexuality prevails. It is one where women ‘become’ men, in dress and demeanour, in order to love other women, and where femme women find masculinized women to love. […] What is evident is that these women actively recreate conditions of what I would call, neo-heterosexua1ity, in which they can enact their romantic/sexual scripts for meaningful relationships during labour migration. […]
A number of Indonesian women migrant workers in Hong Kong have reported that their initiation and awareness of same-sex relationships began in these harsh conditions. It is in these conditions that deep friendships develop, providing comfort and companionship. […] These conditions resonate with studies of homosexuality in total institutions like prisons, boarding schools and so forth. […] Butch women migrants in Hong Kong ‘become’ butch or ‘tomboy’ when they show that they are capable of taking up the social role of males in the company of other women. […]
It is through some of these relatively sophisticated women familiar with urban lifestyles in cities elsewhere that same-sex relationships become something of a ‘fashion statement’. One respondent said that “Being a lesbian makes a woman ‘powerful’”. By this she meant attractive to other women, in terms of their strong identity statements, as rebellious and independent especially where it relates to their sexuality.
Apart from fulfilling the physical needs for sex, she believed that this form of behaviour is common because it is perceived as trendy. It is in oppressive conditions of labour export that young women’s experiences contribute towards creating conditions where social norms of behaviour are temporarily dislodged by needs for comfort and self-validation. In labour migration, physical distance from home and financial independence have the effect of destabilizing previously unquestioned arenas of power, dentitions of symbolic boundaries, and social and moral codes that govern behaviour.” *
“Because they have only one day a week on which they can move about freely, the social and cultural space they have created in the parks is gradually being transferred from the real world to a virtual reality on Facebook.”
What role did social media play in their lives? And why?
The rigid corset of their situation as migrant workers prevents any form of self-determination in the shaping of their lives. The maids, like other young women, are searching for recognition, meaning and individuality. Because they have only one day a week on which they can move about freely, the social and cultural space they have created in the parks is gradually being transferred from the real world to a virtual reality on Facebook. Here, individually acting out one’s own personality knows no boundaries. Most of the women have several public Facebook accounts with permanently changing names with thousands of images. Their preferred form of communication during the week is Facebook live. They clean, cook, eat and do the laundry for hours in front of the camera, with the community watching and commenting.
You have created a multimedia exhibition gathering both footage from social media platforms, documents, passport photos and, of course, documentary photography. Why did you feel this was necessary to tell their story?
The story of Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong is very complex, and it’s impossible to tell it only in one narrative by documenting their only day in freedom. It is the first time I am working with huge amounts of text integrated into an exhibition – their own quotes, other quotes from internet forums where employers talk about their housemaids in disrespectful terms, and my own narratives. I decided to give the viewer the opportunity to look at their situation from several, sometimes contradictory perspectives, as there are usually many realities at once.
What I could observe on their Sundays, in the form of documentary photography, differs greatly from their own images they create in the homes of the employers themselves. The narrative told when only looking at the brutal agency material in form of paperwork or the application photos is again a completely different story, which is true at the same time.
It would be easy for me to look at this topic purely from the photos I took, and as a result, to have a rather limited and stilted emotional impression of the lives of these maids. But expanding the number of voices that I represent in the work not only gives us greater access to the sadness and brutality of their situation, but also to the optimism, hope and beauty of the high points of their lives.
Where will your next project take you?
Currently, I am working on two projects, one about love in China and another one about German Angst.
* As Normal as Possible, Lesbianism among Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong, by Amy Sim, Hong Kong University Press.
The exhibition Apples for Sale, by Rebecca Sampson, is on view until December 16 at Foam, Keizersgracht 609, Amsterdam.
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Beauty queen contestants waiting for the recognition of the jury - housemaids on their day off in Hong Kong, 2016
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Gathering of Indonesian housemaids on their day off - Victoria Park, Hong Kong, 2017