Taiwan: 《Voyage 15840》– the photo book powered by migrant worker

Voyage, means a period of trip to anywhere. 15840, it is the minimum wage for workers in Taiwan. However, for migrant workers in Taiwan, it means the “maximum”. By naming Voyage 15840, TIWA (Taiwan International Workers’ Association) gathered all the photo works from 19 migrant workers in Taiwan. They published the photo book to voice out what migrant worker saw while working in Taiwan, the humanity, and the society.

On June 3, all migrant workers gathered to celebrate. By announcing the first photo book published, there were also some dances and other activities volunteered from other groups. In addition, all the 19 photographers staged on to give a short talk for their excitement and deep gratitude. Grace, who previously had basic trainings in art in her home town the Philippines, indicated that she is very happy to express her true feelings to others via those photo works. Another photographer, Gonzalez was first amazed at himself as the only male who had attended and said, “Photography is great! I want to show my works to all my family and friends when I am back to my home town!”



The self-report from the minority

In Taiwan, we always have the stereo type on migrant workers of being black, dirty, noisy and in crowds because of the gap/barriers of languages and cultures. We resent them as we believe they are robbing our work opportunities. Also, in the press, they are shown as very poor and pitiful or hateful. The chief business assistant and director of photo workshop, Wu Jing-Ru, criticized, “In the past few months, we heard of Thai workers from High Speed Railway fighting against violence and Vietnamese household workers killed her employer. In these incidences, no one has asked them of what they were thinking at the moment they did the behaviour. So why did it happen anyway?”

Jing-Ru also expressed, ‘Voyage 15840′ is to let migrant workers interpret, face up to and express what they feel and how they think by photographing. These migrant contributors always take efforts for Taiwan massive construction, but ignored from the public and the media. By this opportunity, migrant workers and Taiwan citizens can real ‘see each other’. During the interview of one radio program, Watch Media, the host Benla mentioned, “I do not know what these workers were thinking when being pictured, but perhaps by the picturing themselves, they are trying to tell us something…”

One staff for the photo workshop, Chiang Ching-Fang, expressed that members from the course were quick learners. They can master the ability in photographing and drawing in a short time. However, in two workshops of each lasting for 6 months, it is not only teaching the photo skills but discussing on all the art works with each that matters. When migrate to Taiwan, under the severe circumstances, all the migrant workers were “trained not to talk on everything”. And this is the most challenging.

Again and again we asked the students: “What do you want to say?” and “how do you wish to go about saying it? …” Gradually I realized, it was not easy to say “I” (i.e. “I see, I feel, I think, or I want…”) given that the principle of their job is mainly to cater to other people's every need.

Though it is not easy to show the courage to open themselves to others under the sun, gradually, they finally crossed the line. Jing-Ru recalled, “Facing our emotions needs courage and the more when facing other general people. They are potentially the actors in the pictures. At first, these migrant workers could merely stand in a far way to take shots. After several months testing and trying, they could go to the pictured for a short talk. Like Vangie, she had her photos on the old man who sells ice cream. Ellen had hers on the police and their cars.

Still stressed by Jing-Ru, every migrant worker has her/his own story and identity. They are not just workers, but daughters, mothers or wives at the same as well. They are indeed the heroines to keep up the economy for their home town. By working abroad, their souls are eroded with the deplorable living and work conditions. By discussing and being listened, they start to piece up again…

The strike and the touch

Few getting touch with the migrant worker issues, Akiyama was attracted by the poster of “Voyage 15840”. She shared the strike and the reflection in her mind after visiting the exhibition:

When sitting with a migrant worker from the Philippines, Thailand, or other places of South-East Asia, we always are alert to or start to feel uncomfortable. However, s/he is from Japan, America or the Europe, we may not have such feeling toward them even they are actually bastard of nature! Is not it unfair? Is not it?!

Cultural critic, Kuo Li-hshi, indicated in the introduction of the photo book, naming “They Must Represent Themselves!”, that as we know many migrant workers live and work with the deplorable conditions in Taiwan, still, we can not see their complaints in the art works. They made themselves calm and bravely face. He said, “As a reader, we should be sorry and ashamed.” Li-Shi Kuo was astonished at social observations from those migrant workers. In the mean time, they also see the toils of the local workers, such as the betel nut salesgirls , or the plumer who works on Sunday. In “The Sunday Broom” and “NT100 and Filipino Flag”, they used a sign metaphor and sarcasm to project. Kuo sighed, “They made us embarrassed as intellectuals.”

Ma. Belen Batabat also has a series of images about Taiwanese society: the red-shirt troops, the political graffiti by BBrother, the chemotherapy room for cancer patients, and the shoelace-selling old man who dresses in a suit an works with dignity. With her keen observations of thesociety, and sensitivity to people, her works are so admirable that they put to shame many college photography students who have poor real life experiences and are ‘lacking subjects to photograph’.

Bad Mouth has a ‘sister’ from Indonesia at home, thus she is much compassionate toward these people. As a reporter, every time interviewing migrant workers, she feels with them at ease. She sobbed out, “As long as I think of their encounter, I can not help but start to cry…” Bad Mouth saw the differences from ordinary life. She has her inner change since then…

Another lady who accepted my interview, Ellen, told me that because of picturing, she started to feel in a different way for the foreign land. The most important of all, the feeling in picturing, she feels freedom within her. “I have the freedom to express my feelings. I have the freedom to fight for my rights…” From their photos, we saw what they saw and viewed in their eyes.

This article is contributed by foolfitz and Ivy Shiue, both are members of GVLingua (Chinese).

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.