National Identity: In a Foreign Land

Continuing our season of themed content exploring National Identity, Kelly Bryan interviews July Sumalde.

Interview by Kelly Bryan

Photographer, July Sumalde’s series In a Foreign Land sensitively explores the lives of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW’s), whilst simultaneously investigating her own national identity. As a child of two OFW’s, she hoped the project would strengthen her connection to her absent mother, and develop an understanding of the sacrifices these individuals make to financially support their families back in the Philippines. July’s casual yet beautifully intimate portraits document the women in their homes away from home, showcasing their efforts to bring an essence of their national identity into these foreign spaces.

Kelly Bryan had the pleasure of chatting to July about the personal connection and concept behind the project.

Kelly Bryan: What influenced you to focus on the lives of Filipino overseas workers?

July Sumalde: Most of my work revolves around my experiences and personal identity, however, focusing on a photo series about the lives of OFW’s, was a project I was hesitant to do because of the sensitive subject around my upbringing as a child of an OFW. I grew up with different relatives from my mother’s side as far as I could remember and therefore, the idea of having a ‘mother’ was foreign to me as I only got to see her once a year during her annual visit to the Philippines where I was living. My mother had always mentioned the sacrifice, struggles and her naivety. I’d always wonder if this was a natural setting or situation amongst OFWs.

This project was a way for me to better understand my mother’s perception and experiences of working abroad away from her family for almost three decades. My memories are of growing up with relatives. I recall all the phone calls, the annual two-week long visits and I would wonder why my mother and father – weren’t with us during important milestones in our lives, like graduations and birthdays. I realised that it is becoming a social norm in the Philippines to have one or even both parents working abroad; half of my peers at school have an OFW parent. 

I’m the product of her sacrifices, fed with privileges my parents didn’t get and this project was a way of exploring the depths that these women go to for their families.

KB: You mentioned that it has almost become a social norm for Filipino parents to work as OFWs. Why do you feel so many choose this career path?

JS: It very simply provides a better income. Filipinos with degrees are still choosing to work abroad because of the insufficient pay. It allows them to put their younger siblings in school, buy food and pay bills without using all their savings it’s the logical decision. Most apply for jobs in more developed countries where they’re able to progress. Some are then able to build a house, invest in or create their own business.

From ‘The Foreign Land’ ©July Sumalde

KB: You photographed these workers in three separate countries; the UK, Luxembourg and Germany, was there any particular reasoning behind these locations?

JS: I wanted to Include as many cities as I could to give a broader view of the places they’re travelling to. It’s really mixed with; densely populated cities like London, coastal towns like Bournemouth and countryside towns in Luxembourg. They travel to every corner of the world. They’re willingness to go to places without certainty to provide for their families is a huge contributor to economic growth in the Philippines. 

I particularly chose Luxembourg as my mother has worked there in the past and was familiar with other workers, who I subsequently asked to take part in the series. Germany was a last-minute decision as a women from the series had a cousin living in Bonn that she visited one weekend. I was able to accompany her and ask the cousin if she would like to be included in the series. 

KB: It is lovely to see that you used the project as a means to see your mother and strengthen your bond with her; do you feel your relationship is stronger now?

JS: Definitely. There were things she and I couldn’t express or say before, that we’re able to do now. I feel that we’re still in a process of understanding each other’s feelings and thoughts, but are definitely more open with one another as a result of this project, that’s the most important outcome this process created. 

From ‘The Foreign Land’ ©July Sumalde

KB: Although you acknowledge that the role of male OFWs are just as important, what made you focus solely on women?

JS: This was such an open project and I wanted to be as diverse as possible in the subjects. However I received lots of rejections from the males I contacted. due to their work priorities and reluctance to be in front of the camera. I decided to start the project with women and in the two months that followed it predominantly ended up being female subjects. It led to create a reversed gender role, where female workers were living in the traditional male role providing for the family as the ‘breadwinner’. Supporting their immediate family as much as their close relatives’ needs. 

KB: Did you form a relationship with any of the women involved; how much time did you spend with each subject?

JS: I had a different interaction with each person, some were shy, some were very expressive and open in sharing their experiences. Sharing stories of their first time leaving home and their new born/toddlers with their husbands or close family. I held a video interview with each individual, using the same set of questions. During some interviews, I couldn’t sharing my opinion and experiences as someone with both parents as OFWs. I had witnessed the struggle and sacrifice of my parents, particularly my mother. I kept thinking how hard it was for mothers to leave their children and go straight to work after giving birth. The time spent with them wasn’t as long as I would have liked, but those few hours or a day was enough to see the love and passion they have. Giving their children and family a better life through their sacrifices.  

KB: The majority of women featuring in the photo series appear in their workplace and home. How did you gain access into such an intimate setting?

JS: I mainly got to know the participants through word of mouth and mutual family friends, I also scouted some through social media. Prior to meeting them, I would have a phone conversation so they knew what to expect. The pattern of meeting them in their homes became consistent, it was easier to meet at their homes where they might be sharing a room with other Filipinos or were ‘living-in’ (living with your employer).

From ‘The Foreign Land’ ©July Sumalde

KB: How did the women feel about being away from their home country; were they able to connect with the culture of their host country or were their hearts always back at home?

JS: Some had left the Philippines during their early twenties or late thirties and others after having a family. Although they had different experiences, it was the loneliness they felt that was a commonality. Filipinos are often brought up with strong family values which comes with a huge sense of responsibility. Being away from loved ones is the hardest thing for them to do, especially leaving their children behind. Communicating long distance with family is far easier to do now. Previously they would only see their families in photographs and contact them through pre-paid sim cards which was costly, some had communicated through mail with letters or recorded tapes. Food also became a difficult element through unfamiliarity with local food, often turning to create Filipino dishes for comfort with the ingredients they could access. 

In countries like Luxembourg, with many languages (French, German, English and Luxembourgish). They face greater difficulty in adapting to new environments and languages. Most Filipinos learn English during childhood, but the nature of their jobs require communicating in other languages which become difficult to learn as an adult. I met a woman who lived in a suburban town in Luxembourg; she had studied German and French religiously for more than 3 years to be able to communicate well with her employers and even learnt how to drive so that she could travel around the town easier. She admitted it took a long time to get her driving license as she learnt through her mid-thirties. 

KB: Do you feel the women are able to preserve and assert their national identity in their new homes, if so, how do you think they achieve this?

JS: Visiting them in their workplaces and homes, I would often notice similar items. Things such as; a bible with portraits of Jesus and Mary neatly placed on a table, a rosary, photos of children or family, Filipino products and cooking ingredients that taste have the familiarity of home. I walked into their homes with such familiarity as these are items I am used to seeing in my household. Seeing them in other people’s homes, I couldn’t help but think about the longing to be back with their families; through these little items surrounding them they are reminded of their national identity. 

From ‘The Foreign Land’ ©July Sumalde

KB: Thematic undertones of femininity, family and sacrifice run throughout the body of work, whilst also tackling the theme of national identity. How did you navigate the conceptually complex project?

JS: As it’s a topic I’m already familiar with I didn’t find it difficult making the project. However, it became emotionally difficult in giving their stories enough justice, given what they’ve been through. I put such a huge pressure on myself to create the project in a certain way so they would have been happy to been involved. The women in this project fulfil the traditional male role of providing for their family, while keeping their role as mothers. Giving insight in to the ever changing familial structures. We have this term for mothers in Filipino “Ilaw ng Tahanan’, which literally means ‘The Light of the Home’. They’re able to guide us through dark times and give us the comfort and warmth we need. I demonstrated this through the project by shooting with soft, natural light highlighting their vulnerability after sharing their experiences as a new OFW. I also accompanied them to their jobs, experimenting with portraits in their work environment.

KB: How important do you feel it is to create work which tackles the theme of national identity?

JS: There are lots of artists exploring their identity, where they look back at their origins. Living in such a diverse city like London self-exploration becomes very important in holding a sense of belonging to your national identity. Although I’m proud of it, In the past I’ve avoided tasks around my Filipino identity, because of the comments that come with it. Making this work definitely re-asserted my pride in being a Filipino, seeing these strong women helped me understand that my national identity isn’t a deterrent, it is something that should empower me to achieve anything I want and be who I want to be.

From ‘The Foreign Land’ ©July Sumalde

KB: How would you like the audience to respond to In a Foreign Land; what do you hope they will take from your photo series?

JS: In a Foreign Land was definitely a pivotal point in my relationship with my family, especially with my mother. I spent more than one week with her, which is the longest amount of time I have spent with her for the past three years as we were both living away. I want the children and families of OFWs to understand that the lives and sacrifices made by these women to provide a better life for them shouldn’t be taken for granted. Through my series, I also want to inform those who are unfamiliar with my culture and express to them how proud I am that I was raised by a strong and beautiful Overseas Foreign Worker woman.

KB: What are your plans for the future in terms of your photography career and are you working on any projects at the moment?

JS: I consider most of my projects to have an open ending, there is always more to explore. I would love to keep shooting for the project as I am particularly interested in the changes within these traditions over time. At the moment, I’m working in London as a freelance photographer, assistant and studio assistant. I’m still continuously trying out new mediums, creating self-published mini photo books and experimenting with new ideas through collaboration with other artists.

www.julysumalde.com

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Kelly Bryan is a writer and visual artist with particular interests in fine art photography and socially engaged practice.