The W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography is among the oldest photography awards. It is presented annually to a photographer whose work follows the humanistic tradition of W. Eugene Smith. In addition to this prize, there is also a special prize for students. Two finalists caught the attention of the Blind Magazine’s editors. This is the case of the photographer Manu Ferneini who examines the place of domestic workers in Lebanese society.
Their names are Priya, Emily, Rebecca… They came from Sri Lanka, Kenya, Nigeria to work as housemaids for Lebanese families in exchange for room and board. Or worse: they are held captive by the families that employ them. The so-called Kafala system set up by the State legally binds these workers to their employers who exert complete power over them. Their working and living conditions are entirely dependent on the preconceptions and values of the employer. While some are housed in decent conditions, others become modern slaves, subjected to physical and mental violence.
“I have tried to show the situation from a personal angle, minimizing explicit violence,” explains the young Lebanese photographer Manu Ferneini. Her project A Bigger Room spotlights the place of these women—Priya, Emily, and Rebecca—who have lived and worked in the photographer’s family home. They can be seen in the kitchen, in the backyard, in cramped bedrooms: they occupy interstitial, undefined, invisible spaces. The title of the series refers to the housemaids’ dream of having a bigger room, because theirs are tiny—symbolizing the low regard in which they are held in their adoptive homes and in the Lebanese society at large. With great sensitivity and respect, Manu Ferneini paints a touching portrait of these modern captives.
By Coline Olsina