By Ana Valenzuela
Can you remember the things that you did with your hands today? Your fingers flipped through the pages of the newspaper or perhaps clicked on this story online. You stirred through your morning coffee before you sipped it. Maybe your palms run through your forehead to rub off beads of sweat. There were many things, weren’t there? Probably you could not remember them all. How about the hands of other people, like the one who had cared for you, perhaps your mother?
As many women would moisturize their hands or go for a manicure before a photo shoot of said body part, Filipino photographer Ryan Arbillo chose women subjects or models whose hands were free from any makeup or skin enhancements. His collection of portraits entitled “Chicken Hands” is exhibited at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie (The Museum of Photography) in Paris.
“The significance of seeing their bare hands, their ‘Chicken Hands,’ as a symbol of the sacrifice and demeaning treatment that they endure, it inspired and moved me to tell their story the best way I knew how, through the art of photography,” said Arbillo. “I wanted to focus on the struggles of Filipina housemaids who travel abroad for a better life for their family,”
“I am a child of a ‘Chicken Hands’ mother,” he admitted. “I grew up without my mother and although I am grateful for the opportunities I received, it came at too high a price. The pain of growing up without her has stayed with me and through this project I seek to understand why.”
He sought to honor his mother, who worked as a Filipina tailor for horse jockey uniforms, as well as to honor the different overseas Filipina workers through his art.
Though the financial gains that his mother has afforded him even helped saved up for their own gallery, Ryan confessed that the time they spent together was what it cost. Because of this, the project became a way for him to promote “awareness of the socio-economic situations of these women who felt the need to work abroad because of the poverty in their country.”
“Since 2009, I was inspired to create a concept using the title ‘Chicken Hands,’” he said. Arbillo picked up a camera and started it as a hobby in 2007. He was just another tourist or a Frenchman, depending on whose eyes you see it, with a camera taking pictures of the city of Paris. It would be two years after that he would turn this passion into a profession. Around the same time, the idea of his hand portraits eventually came to light.
He shot about 50 to 70 Filipinas who were working in France. These were some of his kababayans who battled it out in a foreign land in search of a brighter future and a better life. The collection was first exhibited in Monaco in 2014 with the help of a Filipino association. In this year’s exhibit, he caught the eye of France’s former minister of culture Jack Lang.
The photos were shot entirely in black and white as Arbillo thought that using this technique would make the hands look more dramatic, and it did.
“As you look through these photos, (you will) read through the loneliness marked on their faces and the stories told through their hands, revealing the perseverance and endurance of these Filipina women,” said Arbillo. “The women I pictured worked for more than a decade, mostly as undocumented workers and living in fear. For them, it is a harsher reality. It is their family’s best chance of survival. They leave behind their family, often never knowing when they will see them again, experiencing racism, culture shock, the language barrier, and constant fear of deportation.”
But if there is one thing that truly defines the Filipino spirit, it is resilience. Even in the face of all troubles, even when their family, their whole life, is away, the Filipino can stand true. Arbillo said of the women: “They were always smiling, never complaining as they did everything their patron demanded with little to no pay. They work unbelievable hours for meager wages so they can send money to their children. They work tirelessly, so their families can have the basic necessities.”
Arbillo deemed it his greatest humanitarian calling to somehow inspire Filipinos and the Philippine government to focus on finding a way for families to stay together and thrive above the poverty line and, somehow, not have the need to leave their family, their country behind anymore.
“Look around you at the Chicken Hands in your life. Give a voice to the silence of their words, the unseen fatigue, and the unheard cry of our beloved overseas workers. My wish is for this work to be considered a great awakening from darkness in all nations, that their legacy will lead us to see the light that illuminates from their hearts through their hands, turned into chicken hands,” he said.