Lensational inspires women in developing nations to express themselves through photography
Lensational students Rimsha and Malaika, during a 2013 photography programme conducted in partnership with the Citizens’ Commission for Human Development in Lahore, Pakistan. Copyright: Shuchi Kapoor.
By Les Neuhaus
Les Neuhaus is a former foreign correspondent, having covered events across East and Central Africa, and the Middle East. He now works as a freelance reporter from his home in the Tampa Bay area. Follow him on Twitter @LesNeuhaus.
In the age of selfies, endless photo filters and Snapchat, it’s easy to become immune to the power of photography. A photograph is often one of many in the daily deluge of imagery driven by an increasingly self-documenting culture that’s focused on “likes” and heart emojis.
Yet, in many countries with burgeoning economies, people smile shyly when they see a picture of themselves, their families or friends, or even strangers on the street. The idea of being able to have a camera and take photos – by themselves – is often foreign, even unrealistic, particularly for women in countries with deep, patriarchal societies.
The organization Lensational is helping to change that by putting cameras into the hands of women around the world in countries often associated with chronic poverty. Lensational lets its student photographers give their own perspectives on the world around them. This is part of the main ethos, according to co-founder and CEO Bonnie Chiu, who said making art requires students to bring structure and perspective to their creative work and lives.
“We look to achieve our goals through two ways – on emotional and economic levels, and the emotional component transcends other barriers,” Chiu told Images and Voices of Hope by Skype from London. “For women who are illiterate, we’ve found that this is an effective medium in many societies where women are not used to being able to speak out.”
Lensational was established in 2013 in Hong Kong but has since also established itself in London. The staff is comprised entirely of volunteers – 60 in all – working from 18 nations across different continents with a common goal to address gender inequality. Day-to-day communications are primarily carried out via phone, email, social media, Skype and other apps. Since forming, the nonprofit has put digital cameras into the hands of roughly 400 women in 12 different countries across Asia and Africa. Participants are trained and given cameras through credible local partners on the ground in countries where Lensational is active – often through local NGOs.
After putting participants through training, women are given their cameras.
Chiu said the photographers’ work is promoted and sold at exhibitions, a Lensational sales website and partnering agencies. Photographers receive 50 percent of revenue for images sold, with the other 50 percent going back into Lensational’s support operations.
In her TEDx speech, Chiu speaks about the organization’s mission and her work with women around the world:
“In the future, I would love for Lensational to be self sustaining, not reliant on any source of other revenue,” Chiu said. “I would also like each one of our country programs to become autonomous moving forward.”
Programs where Lensational has focused heavily include India, Bangladesh and Thailand. One local partner in Thailand – Daughters Rising, a nonprofit organization working to prevent sex trafficking of girls – has welcomed the opportunity to give the girls they protect an outlet for expression.
“We work with indigenous women from the Karen and Kayan hill tribes in remote villages,” Karen Pham, co-founder and program director, said by email. “They are accustomed to being the target of the tourist lenses, but previously could not afford cameras to document their own culture. Now we have a cascading leadership program where girls who have been through the first Lensational workshops teach new girls.”
Pham said they use the photography to combat poverty for the girls and are ready to put it to good use.
“This week we will launch ChaiLaiSisters.com, a tour company owned and run by indigenous women that will offer portrait sessions (with actual elephants) and photography treks,” Pham said. “The women are all passionate and thankful to be able to document their culture for future generations.”
As for Lensational’s revenues numbers, there has been a total of $15,000 so far, which may seem very modest since being operational for three years. But that money can go a long way in many of the countries where they have programs.
Each country has about 10-15 cameras, ranging from basic point and shoots to more technical digital cameras.
Lensational doesn’t come into communities trying to preach or browbeat communities run by men. On the contrary, Chui said there haven’t been any reactions that would cause them to pull a program out of an area for fear of causing harm to students.
“To be honest, in all of the countries we have worked in, we have been received quite positively,” she said. “We are seen more as a hobbyist group – not as an activist group. We haven’t received any backlash from men or from local partners.”
It helps to have that kind of cooperation in the communities they work in, Chui said, adding that Lensational hopes to be on the ground in more countries in the future, teaching more women to not just pick up a camera, but to look within themselves.
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