Seneng Utami

How This Ex-Domestic Worker Became a Photographer and Programmer Against All Odds

Seneng Utami’s journey is a story of purpose, perseverance, and the power of real-world learning. Despite facing many challenges as a former domestic worker, Seneng boot-strapped her way to pursuing her passion for photography and coding. 

Through her participation in the Soho House Hong Kong Mentorship Program 2021, Seneng found a mentor who helped her gain real-world experiences in photography and build confidence in her work. 

Now, she is exploring the world of coding and hopes to use her skills in both photography and programming to help underserved communities. Read on to find out more about Seneng’s purposeful path. 

What inspired you to pursue photography?

I worked for a photo studio in Jakarta in 2015 not because I knew anything about photography—but because I wanted to move to the city! I learned about photography during that time. 

In 2019, I was in Hong Kong while the protests were happening. I became friends with Yuli Riswati, an Indonesian domestic worker who became a citizen journalist during the protests. I admired her and wanted to help, so I took photos for her. I was sad when she got deported but taking photos made me feel closer to her. 

What I love about photography is that it can convey multiple meanings. One photo can speak for many unheard voices. As a domestic worker, it was difficult for me to talk freely, but I found power in photography. 

What is the purpose that drives you? 

Learning not just for myself but to help others. As a domestic worker who worked in Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, I experienced discrimination and verbal abuse. I used my spare time and whatever free resources I could get my hands on to learn English and other vital skills. Going to the public library in Hong Kong was a dream come true for me. 

I’m hungry for knowledge and skills because no one can take it away from me. On the contrary, it’s something that I can develop and share with others to help improve their lives. 

Photo by Seneng Utami

Why did you want to join the Soho House Mentorship Program?

As a beginner photographer, I felt like I needed a mentor and I wanted to connect with other young creatives. In 2021, I was about to leave Hong Kong and go back to my home country, Indonesia. I wanted to gain experiences and build connections before heading back. 

When I heard about the Soho House Mentorship Program from my friend Terenia Puspita, who was also a domestic worker, I knew that it was something I wanted to explore. I couldn’t believe it when I got accepted! Terenia and I became part of the same cohort, and it was a really amazing experience. 

What was the Mentorship Program like?

As a domestic worker, I worked six days a week and devoted my day off for the program. It wasn’t easy because my day off would change from week to week, but I’m so happy I made it work with the help of a friend. 

How did your mentor help you through the process?

My mentor Michael Kistler gave me the opportunity to join his class and visit his studio. He shared his experiences, showed me what it’s like to pursue photography as a career, and helped me gain confidence in my work. He was like a father figure to me. 

Seneng Utami with her mentor Michael Kistler

What was it like to showcase your final project?

It was amazing to showcase my street photography. I was already happy just to show people my work, but my mentor suggested offering the pieces for sale if people were interested. I thought: Was that possible? Did my photos really have value? 

My mentor helped me with the pricing and I ended up selling seven photos. It was unbelievable for me! When I went back to Indonesia, I used the proceeds to buy food and books for refugees, which is a cause that’s very close to my heart. 

Photo by Seneng Utami

Now you’re in Nepal and pursuing programming. What’s it like to explore this new world?

My coding journey started in 2021, when I went back to Indonesia and had some free time. My boyfriend-now-husband, a software engineer, supported me in learning how to code. 

To be honest, it was difficult for me because I didn’t know much about computers and I had to translate the English instructions first so I could understand. I had trouble focusing because it was so noisy in my head—a long-term effect of my struggles as a domestic worker. I remember one time it took me over five hours to learn a single line of code! 

However, it’s in my character to explore new things and I’m determined to learn. When I get frustrated, I take a break and come back… again and again and again. I’m figuring out how to focus and manage my thoughts so that my mind can be more open to learning. When my code works, it feels so satisfying! 

I’ve started making an app in the front-end and back-end. I’m aware that I really need to study harder to keep improving my learning progress. Through this journey, I realized that there are not many Indonesian coding courses and that courses in general are so expensive. 

I’ll take this time to master my craft and prepare for the next bigger challenge in my life. In the long term, I want to provide programming courses for free to underserved communities. I want to empower domestic workers, girls who can’t go to school, and anyone who is interested to keep learning. I want to use my photography and coding skills to build websites and help others change their lives for the better, regardless of who they are or where they come from. 

Photo by Seneng Utami

How would you advise young people who want to pursue their passion but don’t know where to start? 

Understand why you want to do what you want to do. For me, I was inspired to get into photography because of the Hong Kong protests, and I wanted to learn coding to explore something new. Study on your own, yes, but find mentors and communities. There’s nothing like real-world experiences and connections. 

Photo by Seneng Utami


Want to work on your passion project with the guidance of a mentor too? Sign up for the Soho House Mentorship Program! The free, self-paced, 12-week program is open to everyone aged 18 to 30 years old and based in Hong Kong or Mumbai. You need to be of legal drinking age in these cities at the time of application.

Sign up for the Soho House Mentorship Program!