SHOOTING FOR MORE
Lensational teaches women across the world how to use photography to document their lives, turning storytelling into a creative income. We caught up with founder Bonnie Chiu, to find out about the work her charity is doing. We were keen to find out what inspired her to help change the lives of so many through photography. And also hear about all the amazing experiences she’s had over the last 5 years, since starting Lensational.
Why do you think photos make such compelling stories?
A picture tells a thousand words. Photography is a universal language transcending culture and language. It can share a story, evoke emotions and expand your field of vision. Yet it remains inaccessible to many in the developing world.
How does photography change lives?
Photography has the ability to freeze time, communicate, express, and overall can establish a portrait both of what we’re looking at, but more importantly how we see ourselves. Images transcend time, and can also transcend frontiers: a visual image appeals to each of us in its own way.
It opens up infinite opportunities to create something unique that can shed light on societal issues. This process lives out the feminist mantra: the personal is the political. And this is certainly the first step towards change and understanding.
What inspired you to give women cameras?
In 2011, I met four Turkish girls while traveling. Like any tourist, I took pictures and I taught them to take pictures too. It was refreshing to see things through their eyes - the media has a way of portraying Muslim girls - it was interesting to see things differently, and contradictory to the misconceptions. It made me realise that photography is a universal language transcending barriers.
© Francis Kokoroko
How do you empower these women through Lensational?
Lensational aims to reach out to marginalised women in a self-sustaining way; we follow the progress of our students and put their work in front of a global audience. Women can share their images on our online photo platform, via exhibitions and through our corporate partners, like Getty Images. Half of the revenue goes to the women as a source of income, while the other half is reinvested back into Lensational, helping us continue our work.
With few images of strong, female role models to inspire them, young girls and women may not realise the options available to them. Our images at Lensational seek to change this.
How many women have you worked with through Lensational?
We’d built a community of over 100 volunteers across 25 countries, and have trained 700 women and girls in 20 countries in Asia and Africa.
© Lucy Tabu
Which photograph has inspired you the most?
‘A Touch of Pink’ (featured at the top of the page) - it was taken by a garment worker named Yasmin Islam Eva in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2015. The garment sector provides most employment opportunities for women in Bangladesh, and is perhaps the only way for rural, uneducated women to work. 80% of the industry’s employees are women. But garment workers are underpaid and receive little recognition from their families or society. And industrial accidents and labour abuses – such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse – remain etched on the memory of those in the industry. This is why we started our project training workers to tell their stories. It’s something very personal to me because my grandmother spent 20 years as a garment worker in very harsh conditions.
This image really captivated me, because of the contrast between the vibrant roses and the concrete skyline of Dhaka. It transposed me immediately to the rooftop of this factory, as if I was the lady who took the picture. Despite all odds, people tend to search for beauty anywhere. And sometimes it’s the small beautiful things that we hang onto, to find meaning.
What have you learnt about women’s lives through the photos?
Because we work with the world’s most marginalised women, one assumption is that their lives are full of despair and sadness. But it’s not true. It’s the monolithic stereotype that decades of ‘poverty porn’ has led us to believe. Their lives are so rich with colours, and diverse with experiences - but they all have a common theme - resilience.
What would you say to inspire someone to get out and use image making to tell stories?
I started my idea of empowering women through photography, on International Women’s Day in 2013, initially as a Facebook page. I was only 20 years old and I didn’t anticipate how the idea would gain so much resonance with people across the world. I hope this will inspire people to get out and use the power of photography to tell a story - no matter how small it may seem in the beginning, you never know the impact it may have.
What’s your vision for the future?
At Lensational, we imagine a world in which, through photography, women from all over the world can express themselves freely, fulfil their aspirations, and be represented in a dignified way.
© Alison Joyce
What’s in Bonnie Chiu’s Bag:
Interview credit: Written by Ross Cockrill and John Coomber