Singapore Sisters: One Photographer’s Tribute to Foreign Domestic Helpers

Australian photographer Hayley Durack shares what inspired her to create a photobook celebrating the lives and contributions of domestic helpers in Singapore.

By SGN | 13 Oct 2022

During her stay in Singapore, Hayley – a photographer with over 20 years’ experience – captured beautiful, unique perspectives of hundreds of families. 

“I love discovering those pivotal yet fleeting moments that often pass too quickly,” she says. To catch the essence of her subjects, she always insisted on shooting in their native environment: at home – never in the studio – surrounded by beloved objects and engaged in their favourite activities.

Whichever assignment she was on, one thing remained consistent. She would always notice the presence of a foreign domestic helper – striving to be inconspicuous in the background, stepping in to help with something before slipping away again.

“I’d often ask, ‘Can we get some shots with your helper?’” Hayley says. After each shoot, she would put aside a few of these images and, over the years, the few accumulated into a collection of thousands.

Hayley was fascinated by the helpers of families she was hired to photograph.

When Hayley met Edith

Upon moving to Singapore with her husband and three daughters in 2016, the idea of hiring a live-in helper was an utterly foreign concept to Hayley. And so, when she welcomed Edith into her home, she hardly knew what to expect.

“Edith came to our family with eight years of experience. She was a kind, gentle and highly intuitive lady. She helped around the house, took care of the children,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I’ve never had a home that looks so lovely!”

Very quickly, Hayley came to realise that they had lots in common. “We were the same age; we both had had three children. I saw her as exactly me – we just grew up in really different worlds.” 

Still today, Hayley carries vivid memories of her family’s time with Edith. She recalls a small photo in Edith’s room of her child that had passed away, her collection of makeup for when she dressed up to go out on Sundays, and her magnificent boodle fight – a Filipino feast served on banana leaves that she occasionally prepared, which the family would sit around and dig into with their hands.

Edith joined the Durack family during their five years in Singapore.

Celebrating brave, resilient women

Hayley was constantly amazed at how much domestic helpers did for families in Singapore while living hundreds or thousands of miles from their own. “I always felt that they were incredible women,” she says, “and I feel like they’re a big part of Singapore’s success story.”

Inspired by these encounters, she set out to create a photobook celebrating the brave, talented and resilient helpers working in Singapore, with all proceeds from sales going to HOME, the charity organisation that supports migrant workers in distress.

For the title, she chose Singapore Sisters, recognising the strong bonds and deep friendships these women have formed far from home. “When they’re away from family, they rely on each other, they become sisters to each other,” Hayley explains. 

Putting the book together took some effort. Although the photos she needed were already in her possession, she had to whittle down her archive of thousands, interview the women – some of whom had returned home – and seek the permission of their employers, before settling on 32 profiles that are included in the book.

Edith and Hayley at a book signing for Singapore Sisters.

Fond memories of Singapore

Though the Duracks have since relocated to Tokyo, they deeply miss living in Singapore. Hayley’s daughters – now aged 10, 12 and 14 – spent some of their formative years in Singapore, and they regularly pester their parents for a chance to revisit the country.

“Oh my gosh, that’s still all they talk about,” Hayley shares. “‘When are we next going back to Singapore?’ ‘Can I take a flight on my own?’

Hayley’s family misses life in Singapore.

Hayley herself reminisces about the joys of Singaporean food – favourites include fish head curry, kueh pie tee, and chicken rice – and the warm community of neighbours in their condominium, made up of a good mix of Singaporeans and expats.

Outside of work shoots, she used to head out to photograph colours and scenes of Singapore that captivated her: images of HDB heartlands, coffeeshops, rustic Pulau Ubin, or people fishing at the jetty. 

In the end, when Hayley made plans to move out of Singapore, so did Edith. “I felt really happy for her, that she decided to go back to her family, after 12 years in Singapore,” Hayley says, adding that they remain in touch and message each other constantly.

With Singapore Sisters, she hopes to leave behind a little tribute to the helpers that continue to serve families with remarkable dedication – one that shines a light on the lives, the hopes and the dreams of these amazing women.

Edith with her husband and children visiting from the Philippines, together with Hayley’s three daughters.

Singapore Sisters

Singapore Sisters is a limited-edition photobook celebrating the lives of domestic helpers in Singapore, with all proceeds going to the charity organisation HOME.

About Hayley

Hayley is an award-winning photographer who specialises in portrait and documentary photography. She has shot on assignment around the world, including in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Italy, Mexico and Zambia.

Connect with her here.

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