Sensational Lensational: A Photography Initiative Aiming to Empower Women One Camera at a Time

One of my favorite quotes about photography comes from Annie Leibovitz, the famed portrait photographer most known for snapping famous people and coveted Vanity Fair spreads. Leibovitz says that “emotional content is an image’s most important element, regardless of the photographic technique. Much of the work I see these days lacks the emotional impact to draw a reaction from viewers, or remain in their hearts.

When I chanced upon a website of photographs taken by marginalized women in developing countries, it was precisely the emotional content of their images that caught my attention, that—to use Leibovitz’s words—drew a reaction. Some of the photographs I could tell were taken by amateur photographers; others were so simple at first glance that it appeared anyone could have taken them. But when I flipped through the online portfolio, I saw that each one was permeated with emotions, aiming to tell a story, presenting a slice of life, or simply capturing a beautiful moment in a life riddled with challenges.

Economically, women earn only about one-tenth of the world’s income and as women comprise two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population, they are also much more disadvantaged when it comes to expressing themselves and having their voices heard. It is on these tenets that Lensational, a non-profit social enterprise aiming to empower underprivileged women through photography, was founded upon. It is Lensational’s website that I chanced upon that day and felt deeply affected by the emotional content of these women’s photographs.

I spoke to Lensational’s co-founder, Bonnie Chiu, about the very important work she and her team do.

Lensational 4_Courage


How did you get the idea for Lensational?

In late 2011, I was travelling in Istanbul, snapping away with my Canon 600D, when four girls came up and asked if they could take a look at my camera. I started teaching them how to take pictures. Even though they didn’t speak much English, we connected over photography. I realized then that photography is a universal language that transcends cultural boundaries.

I started thinking about whether photography could transcend other types of boundaries that hold girls back from achieving their potential. I then discussed with an old classmate, Peggy Tse, the possibility of setting up Lensational. The idea took shape in September 2012 but it wasn’t until March 2013, when we established a Facebook page—following a major defeat in a competition for social business—that the organization really began.

Lensational 5_Nature Face

“Nature Face”

You endeavor to make a better world for women, one camera at a time. Tell me about your three main initiatives: recycling cameras, conducting photography training, and selling photos.

The advent of smartphones and digital SLR cameras has led to the decline of traditional digital cameras, mostly in the developed world. Instead of putting these cameras to waste, Lensational uses them for female empowerment in developing countries.

In terms of training, we have a standard training manual, which draws on pedagogies espoused by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who is a huge advocate for social justice and speaking up on behalf of the oppressed. It provides research and practical tips about how our team members should structure photography workshops and work with our partners in our program locations. In terms of the content, we teach women and girls the basics of using cameras (ISO, framing, etc), and also introduce them to thinking about how images can be powerful, even political, in shaping perspectives (and how they can possibly oppose mainstream narratives), encourage them to express parts of their personality through photography, and teach them how to link images to tell a story (about the untold parts of their lives, about their struggles and obstacles, about the things that they cherish and celebrate).

After the training, we organize exhibitions in Hong Kong and London, with the aim of showcasing these women’s creativity and raising awareness on gender issues in developing countries. We also sell the photos on our online platform, with 50% of the revenue going back to the women.

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“Elegance” was taken by 12-year-old Shobe Majaraz. She makes and sells jewelry on the beach to help support her family. She is a fast runner and is often challenging the boys for a race on the beach.

Why the photography medium in particular? Why not empower women through film or music or handicrafts?

Photography gives voices to women who are traditionally silenced, who are denied a chance to express emotions. We believe that women feel less fearful and inhibited to start a conversation through photographs. Women’s emotions and thoughts can be easily expressed through a press of the shutter, regardless the restriction of illiteracy.

Emotional empowerment of women is crucial as this expands the sense of agency—the power within—them. The intended audience of the photographs range from their fellow program participants, to their family members, and even to a global audience. Over time, this can result in a change of perception for both the women and audiences. These photographs allow us to reimagine the possibilities of gender roles and to challenge the cliché of the victimized image of ‘Third World women.’

We are also inspired by the concept of therapeutic photography pioneered by psychologist Judy Weiser. In her book, PhotoTherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums, she advocates using photography as a counseling technique in order to help people connect with feelings and memories that are too deep or complex to be understood through words alone.

Lensational 10_Come and Go

“Come and Go”

In what ways do you think photography can tell stories in ways that other mediums cannot?

Images transcend language and cultural barriers. An image has the power to evoke emotions and provoke reflection across various locales across a variety of sociopolitical contexts, regardless of its source or the language spoken in a country. This then works for our business model: images taken in our program locations can be understood and appreciated, and tell a story even if they are being seen by a viewer halfway across the globe. It fosters empathy in a way that is difficult to achieve through other mediums.

Lensational 8_Only I Have

“Only I Have”

What kind of women do you work with and in which countries?

Gender issues in each country are different. We situate ourselves in the day-to-day realities of the women and girls by first conducting research. This is important for us as a moral imperative, and also acts as a guide for identifying the groups we should work with.

From a macro level, we first identify the regions where the vision of women’s empowerment—achievement of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3—remains a distant dream. While these indicators are never a wholly accurate reflection of the obstacles that prevent the establishment of gender equality in different regions across the world, they do provide a useful starting point.

For instance, Lensational chose to start work in South Asia. Non-agricultural wage employment is an indicator of MDG 3, in order to promote gender equality and empower women. South Asia has the lowest percentage of women in non-agricultural wage employment, a mere 20%. It is under this context that we started work in Pakistan in the summer of 2013. And it is under the very same context that we expanded to Bangladesh in February 2015.

We then delve into the most acute issue facing women and girls in that particular country. For example, in Pakistan, the most acute issue we identified is education, which is why we worked with non-formal schools near the cities of Lahore and Multan, aiming to build confidence among school girls and encouraging them to begin thinking about prescribed ideas of gender. However, the most pressing issue in Bangladesh is different: there is almost no gender parity in primary and secondary education. Instead of working with schools, our research has shown that working with garment factory workers would have a bigger impact—80% of garment factory workers are women and the garment sector is the largest employer of women in the country.

Based on these findings, we can customize the photography program to the needs of different groups and also choose the most appropriate local partners that can give us access to the target beneficiaries.

In the future, further engagement with on-the-ground stakeholders can provide new methods for identifying areas that demand concern. Certain issues such as women who may be systematically confined to certain types of work , or women who may not work at all, may fall outside the parameters of indicators like the MDG 3.

Lensational 10_Master of Dogs

“Master of Dogs” by 12-year-old Shobe Majaraz

You also work with girls. Some of your photographers are not yet even teenagers. What is the main difference between running programs for women and girls?

Again, this depends on the gender issues in that country. We are starting to work more with girls, for instance, the Girl Effect, a project in which we’ve worked with girls in Kenya’s urban slums.

Lensational 7_Best Friends

“Best Friends”

Tell me about some of the specific women/girls you’ve worked with and the images they’ve taken.

We have worked the longest with Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong, some of whom started learning photography with us in 2013. They have been enthusiastic about photography and have bought their own cameras. After working with us, many of the women return home to their countries and endeavor to start photography businesses.

Here are some photos by Anik, who loves hiking and has taken many images of landscapes. She has dreams of becoming a travel blogger and wedding photographer.

Sinna Hermanto has an eye for quirky images and likes to manipulate her pictures to show an alternative side to reality. Her work was submitted to the Creative Light and Shadow Contest organized by EyeEm and The Photoblographer, and has received a special mention alongside 29 other runners-up, out of 43,000 submissions.

Jem Guanzon likes taking photos of nature, especially birds—they remind her of freedom. Jem, who has recently moved to Moscow, says photography has become a medium that enables her to freely express herself. In a touching poem that was shared in a May 2015 TED talk in London that I did, she expressed her gratitude for the skills and confidence that she has acquired through Lensational.

Asti Maria takes images of everyday life in Hong Kong and endeavours to open a photography studio.

Has there been a particularly memorable photograph? 

Lensational 1

The above photo was taken by one of Lensational’s students. Women and girls are never seen driving a motor-taxi in Pakistan. But during one of the photography workshops, this girl posed on top of a motor-taxi. This sends a lot of encouraging signs to what female empowerment may mean.

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Yuen Sin (Marketing and Communications Manager): I was struck by this arresting image of a girl’s eye that Nargis, one of the surf girls in Cox’s Bazaar took. It will be showcased at the Rich Mix exhibition in London and also inspired a hashtag campaign that we will be launching to engage with the community in East London—#HerLensHerStory. I think that this image is arresting because it powerfully opposes the male gaze and is also a very intimate close-up that provokes reflection on the part of the viewer: Is the act of seeing itself a powerful and political act? Do the lenses through which we view others affect our biases, opinions, and assumptions? The colors are also hauntingly beautiful.

Lensational 6_Perfect Frame

“Perfect Frame”

What exhibitions do you have coming up?

We organized a photography workshop at the Down Syndrome Federation of India in Chennai, in January this year. We had the opportunity to learn about the challenges faced by the women at the Institute and understand in what ways photography could be helpful. The women showed great enthusiasm in learning about photography and displayed a refreshingly new side of their personalities, posing for pictures and expressing themselves to the camera and their friends. The candid photos taken by these women are being showcased at the inaugural Chennai Photo Biennale, a non-profit initiative organized by the Goethe-Institut Chennai and Travelling Lens. The images will aim to challenge public perceptions of Down Syndrome.

Our next exhibition is Unfurling Bangladesh: The Picture Through Her Eyes. It is based on two participatory photography projects in Bangladesh that we have been working on for the past two years—one with girls who defy convention by learning how to surf in the tourist beach town of Cox’s Bazaar, led by photographer Allison Joyce; and the other with garment factory workers in factories near Dhaka. There is a large Bangladeshi diasporic community in East London and we hope that the exhibition will have a twofold effect: spreading awareness about issues of labor rights and gender inequality in Bangladesh, and providing an avenue for dialogue between the community in London with the Bangladeshi community in East London—where some women are still silenced and subject to patriarchal norms, having moved to the UK in arranged marriages when they were young and being isolated from the mainstream community.

We are also organising a talk on the impact of fashion and photography in shaping women’s identities in early March with experts and activists in the field.

Lensational 3_Cookie Pause

“Cookie Pause”

What else are you working on?

In Bangladesh, we have partnered with two garment factories to provide photography training to 30 female workers. The project aims to improve labor conditions and change the way consumers identify with the clothes they wear. The images taken by the workers document the realities of garment factories to consumers. Their stories invite consumers to build empathy and challenge conventional tropes of oppression by painting in-depth portraits of female garment workers who aren’t just workers. By partnering with fashion brands and organizing exhibitions in fashion capitals like London and New York, we seek to inject more transparency and accountability into the whole fashion supply chain. The first part of the project was completed in early February and some of the photographs from this program will be exhibited at our Rich Mix exhibition. You can read more here.

In celebration of the International Women’s Day 2016 in March, our partner DFYnorm, an ethical womenswear fashion brand that empowers both the wearer and maker of fashion founded by two young Indian women, will launch a new fashion line to fundraise for Lensational’s projects.

In Thailand, Lensational’s ambassador Patricia Lois Nuss traveled to Chiang Mai to meet with Daughters Rising, an organization aiming to prevent trafficking of at-risk girls and empowering them through education and job training programs. Patricia is currently working with a pilot group of seven women and girls to train them in basic photography. These women can then take photographs of aspects of their lives typically not covered by outsiders. Lensational’s goal is to showcase their work in Chiang Mai and possibly Bangkok, and to continue the workshops with a new cycle of women, as well as support those who want continue with photography by connecting them to local photographers and artists.

We also have a project in Jordan coming up in March/April and possibly another one in September.

Check out photographs from Lensational projects at the Chennai Photo Biennale, running until 13 March, and at the Unfurling Bangladesh exhibition at Rich Mix in London, running from 23 March to 2 April.

Photos are available for purchase here.

All images copyright Lensational.




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