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The 2019 Eugene Smith Grant: A tiny room

The 2019 Eugene Smith Grant: A tiny room

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.

Rebecca (left) works in the kitchen, while her employer, Emile (right), watches the eight o’clock news. © Manu Ferneini

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.

Rebecca is a twenty-three-year-old domestic worker from Nigeria. She worked in Lebanon for a year, only to be replaced by Emily who, as her employer constantly reminded her, was supposedly smarter and more productive than her.  © Manu Ferneini
​​​​​Floor plan of a Lebanese villa featuring the “maid’s room” The Lebanese Construction Law sets the maximum area of the maid’s room at eight meters squared. Cleverly concealed behind architectural layers for both aesthetic and commercial purposes, the room is rendered as invisible as possible.​​​​ © Manu Ferneini
Portrait of Priya on the rooftop of our house in Hazmieh, Lebanon. Priya, originally from Sri Lanka, has been working in Lebanon for twenty-two years now. © Manu Ferneini

Emily © Manu Ferneini

A grocery list written by Emily which reads “Madam’s Bread”. © Manu Ferneini
Emily asked for a 9-month advance on her salary to send the money to the nanny taking care of her one-year-old daughter in Kenya. “She [her employer] keeps my passport so I don’t run away. But where would I go? I would never leave, for my baby’s sake”. © Manu Ferneini

By Coline Olsina 

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