In an intimate photography series, Sarah Isabelle Tan explores her life-long relationship with her nanny
Singaporean artist and photographer Sarah Isabelle Tan turns to photography to navigate the nuances of the tangible and intangible and to make sense of her experiences.
In ‘Alaga’ Sarah explores her relationship with her nanny, Letecia B. Ducusin, who has lived and worked with the Tan family for over 25 years. As Letecia’s contract of service approaches its end this 2021 in accordance with Singapore labour laws that stipulate 60 as the retiring age for foreign domestic workers, Sarah grapples with the end of this chapter by searching through memories of their life together. The result spans two countries in nearly three decades of images, letters, and recordings from both their families’ archives.
Sarah began the series upon Letecia’s receipt of her retirement notice from the Ministry of Manpower. She flew to her nanny’s hometown of San Gabriel, La Union in the Philippines. Here, she spent time taking photographs, listening to stories told by Letecia’s relatives, and exploring nature. They uncovered photo albums in storage which opened a new dimension in the project. Sarah would also revisit her own family’s photographs.
Sarah has always referred to Letecia as ‘Auntie Letecia’ or ‘Auntie Leti,’ while Letecia refers to her as ‘Alaga,’ a Filipino term of endearment for wards or pets under someone’s care. In its early stages, Alaga was exhibited in DECK as part of a group show Undescribed #5. It was later developed with the support of the Objectifs Documentary Award in the Emerging Category.
Audiences witness a personal and heartwarming time capsule through the exhibits. Letecia’s old notes and letters are on display, handwritten in a mix of Tagalog and Ilocano on postcards and lined paper. In more recent images, Letecia connects through a brightly lit smart phone. Children and babies are captured in photographs, some are of Letecia’s family and others are of Sarah herself. Two particular images stand out — one is of a pink-tinged photograph where Letecia gives a young Sarah a haircut at home; the other appears to be a recent image of Letecia having her hair trimmed.
Scenes shift between home life in Singapore and home life in the Philippines. Changes traverse the growth and age, not just of the quality of the photographs and the paper, but of the two women through the years. Their consistent companionship reveals itself in the small intimacies that make up the closest relationships, like the one that they share.
Alaga was further developed under the mentorship of Filipino documentary photographer Veejay Villafranca, a Joop Swart Masterclass attendee and Ian Parry Scholarship recipient. Sarah mentions that while it was a coincidence that both Veejay and Letecia share Filipino roots, ultimately his direction and methodology helped her pin down the core themes of the work and the motivations for it.
Veejay asked Sarah, “What made you decide to pick up a camera in response to Alaga?” Sarah explains that this question became very poignant both for the project itself and her relationship with the photographic medium.
Sarah contemplates her relationship with the camera and the act of photo-making throughout her practice. Photography helps to represent and materialise her experiences. The act of picture-taking is both response and resolution to her longing to grasp moments in time. As each moment translates into a photograph, she attempts to turn time itself into something more tangible than its fleeting nature. The photograph becomes a sampler of existence that is visible in a later moment. “It’s something that exists physically, [taken] before my memory gradually slips further away,” she describes.
When asked if she faced challenges finding pieces of mementos from previous decades, Sarah clarifies that she wasn’t searching for anything in particular. “It was more of a journey and a process of rediscovery, of finding parts of myself and Auntie Letecia in places of the past.” She mentions however that there was a lapse in family documentation for a period around her teen years. This was most likely during the shift in folk photography from point-and-shoot film cameras to digital cameras before smartphones became a norm. “We stopped using analog film to capture moments in the form of sepia-tinged glossy printed photographs. Unfortunately digital images were not backed-up or saved,” she says, explaining the gap.
Although Sarah can never hope to represent a lived life in its entirety within a single exhibit, the process of working on Alaga became a remembrance and ode to the life she and Letecia share.
“Looking at the whole span of photographs has a certain kind of intimacy and distance that hinges on the notion of family. [There is a] delicate vacillation between dependence and independence, between carer and someone being taken care of (alaga).”
Prior to the project, it had not occurred to Sarah just how much her life and Letecia’s intertwined with each other. “I guess when we love someone, we have a place in the relationships we forge with them. Just as we give them space, the relationship itself also gives us a place — a certain identity,” Sarah explains, as she evaluates the numerous hats a person can wear, from the roles they play and identities they carry to the responsibilities and commitments they follow through. “I [began to] see her in so many different roles, as a wife, daughter, mother, grandmother, and friend,” says Sarah after more visits to La Union.
Letecia moved to Singapore in 1993 and initially worked with a different employer. The Tan family became her second employer until this day. Like many foreign domestic workers, she lived away from her family in order to support them financially for many years. Through their exchanges, Veejay and Sarah inquired into the common plight of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
“He encouraged me to explore notions of nurture and care that many OFWs, mainly women, bring with them across geographical distances. There is an outflow of labour and there are sacrifices that come along with it.”
Sarah would shadow Letecia for 24-hours and witness her go through the motions of daily life. She saw Letecia tired after a long day of work and watched her rest.
“There was always an underlying sense of guilt of being afforded the privilege of care that her children have had to grow up without. What will always stay with me is watching her then 18-year-old son tearfully hug his mother goodbye while I sat beside Auntie Leti as she sobbed on the whole flight back to Singapore.”
Letecia’s children who are now based in Singapore visit the Tan family’s residence on Sundays. The two families have become inextricably linked through a special bond that has developed between the two women’s circumstances both in spite and because of their initial roles. As time moves and Sarah grows up, the roles evolve and the care has spilled both ways.
“Auntie Leti would jump at any opportunity to tell anyone about what a difficult child I was to look after. I could not sit still,” admits Sarah. She teases that she has become a better cook than her nanny however still craving for Letecia’s steamed Filipino rice cakes, called puto. “She even has more friends than I do on Facebook and she posts all the most unglamorous shots of me on her feed. But this very same woman would ask me if I’m having dinner at home everyday without fail, and wake up at night just to make sure I got home safely.” Letecia helps Sarah with her art experiments and they would walk the dogs together. “Time does fly by,” Sarah says as she looks back at their life together.
They have passed on pieces of their own culture to each other. Letecia descends from Igorots, an ethnic group in the northern islands of the Philippines. After spending nearly three decades in Singapore, she actually speaks with a pronounced Singlish accent, even sharing that she is more comfortable speaking in Singlish instead of Tagalog. “In our banter with each other, Auntie Leti says ‘Walao,’ a Hokkien expression for displeasure, while I say ‘Bagtit,’ which means crazy both in Hokkien and Ilocano,” Sarah shares, adding that she can count days, numbers, and utter some nursery rhymes in Ilocano, too.
When Letecia video calls her family throughout the day, Sarah drops in to say hello. Sarah refers to Letecia’s children as ‘Ate’ and ‘Kuya,’ which translate to older sister and brother in Filipino. Sarah is now godmother to Letecia’s grandchildren. “It’s a funny thing seeing how the care is being transferred. Now I feel like her grandchildren are under my care.”
Sarah recalls that one starry evening in La Union, Letecia shared that she had grown up playing under the stars. “I miss looking at the stars. In Singapore, when I look up at the sky, I can only see one or two stars, so I think of my home in the mountains and I miss it dearly.” Sarah shares that this is one of her most cherished memories with Letecia.
“I recognise bits of myself there [in La Union] — in the people, within the home and in the landscape through the stories that I grew up listening to. At times, I feel that I am transported back to my own childhood again,” Sarah says of her time in Letecia’s hometown and of time spent with Letecia. Intangible ideas in stories shared about foreign places become familiar and eventually a reality at a later time when Sarah gets to experience them.
“When I look through my old family albums at photos of us, I don’t remember being in them. It’s not cerebral but it feels familiar.”
As care spills over between the two women, so do the ideas and associations linked to their notions of home. Objects like hand-me-down clothes and toys were mailed to Letecia’s relatives in large balikbayan boxes through the years, further bridging their family lives and shared experiences. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia in the recognition of familiarity and of family in Alaga and Sarah’s telling of it.
Letecia will be moving back to the Philippines. She plans to build a second floor in her home in the mountains of San Gabriel. Here she will help out in her family’s plot of land and farm. Letecia assures that she will share her bed when Sarah visits.
In upcoming work, Sarah will be delving into time — how it’s perceived and measured, questioning ideas of the static image and its material objecthood.
To learn more about Sarah’s work, visit her website.