Hong Kong’s Bonnie Chiu Is Empowering Women To Tell Their Stories Through Photography

Posted: March 14, 2019

Through her social enterprise, Lensational, Bonnie Chiu from Hong Kong is enabling marginalized women from developing nations to tell their stories through photography.

Bonnie Chiu was on a pleasure trip to Istanbul. Like other tourists, she too was taking pictures, when a group of Turkish girls approached her. They wanted to see her camera. Even without a shared language, the women communicated with each other, and Bonnie taught them to take photographs.

This made Bonnie realize that photography is a universal language. Moreover, she says, “It was so refreshing to see things through their eyes as the media has a certain portrayal of Muslim girls – it was just so interesting to see things a different way, and somewhat contradictory to these misconceptions.”

On International Women’s Day 2013, Bonnie was scrolling through her Facebook feed, and reading about wonderful women who were fighting for gender equality. It made her think of her grandmother, who was a refugee from Indonesia. “I was raised by my grandmother, who, amid conflict and poverty, lost the chance to be educated and still cannot read and write. She has done so much in her life to fight for equal rights, so that her granddaughter can have it easier. But as I scrolled through my news feed, I thought – how can her story be heard on a global stage?”

Her response was to launch the Facebook page for Lensational, then and there, by sharing a few articles about International Women’s Day and by uploading the photos of the Turkish girls.

After getting some initial social media attention, Chiu launched the Lensational website, with co-founder Peggy Tse, and after securing some initial finance backing from a local NGO, started the first Lensational project –a photography workshop for foreign domestic workers of Indonesian and Filipino descent in Hong Kong.

This is how the Lensational model functions:

Step 1: Second-hand cameras and smartphones are collected from individuals and corporates

Step 2: A rigorous 8-hour photography training programme, is offered to marginalized women. They are given cameras and encouraged to document things around them in photos.

Step 3: The photographs are sold online via stock photography sites like Getty and EyeEm. 50% of the revenue goes to the photographers and 50% is invested into the expansion of Lensational.

Step 4: Participants can choose to avail of further training from professional photographers. Part of Lensational’s mission is to encourage these women to become citizen photojournalists in their local areas and create an independent source of income for themselves.

Today, Lensational has trained more than 700 women and girls in 20 countries in Asia and Africa , and has a network of 100 volunteers across 25 countries.

The impact is threefold.

Firstly, the women who have been trained report feeling more confident in themselves and take pride in their new skills. The social network and friendships formed during the workshop are maintained over time, and this is particularly important when the women have low social capital.

Secondly, the women are able to earn some money via their photographs.

Thirdly, the photos, which often challenge stereotypes, allow for advocacy and awareness about the issue faced by the women in their daily lives.

In this TED talk8, (video below) Bonnie Chiu shares some of these stories. “We are inspired by the concept of therapeutic photography pioneered by psychologist Judy Weiser, who advocates using photography as counseling techniques to help people connect with feelings and memories too deep or complex to be reached or understood through words alone,” Chiu explains.

On International Women’s Day this year, Lensational has launched its own photography sales platform, featuring photos by women in Africa and Asia to encourage gender and diversity balance in photography.

Bonnie’s story has been featured in leading publications like The Guardian, China Daily, The Huffington Post, The Hindu and others. Bonnie Chiu was awarded the Asian Women of Achievement Award sponsored by NatWest on 12 May 2016. In 2017, she was on the Forbes List of 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs. Lensational was the second prize winner at SIGEF (Social Innovation and Global Ethics Forum) 2015.

There is a definite gender gap in photojournalism. In 2017, only 13 percent of front page photos in major international newspapers were taken by women. And since the founding of World Press Photo in 1955, only four women have won first prize, none of whom were women of color. This results in some important stories being underreported.

As photographer Daniella Zalcman, the founder of Women Photograph points out, “But we also just have different access. If we’re talking about stories in the Middle East, a woman is going to get very different access than a man would be able to. There are certain communities where you cannot work if you are male.” There is an urgent need to diversify the photojournalism industry, to reflect the diversity of the audience. Bonnie Chiu’s efforts with Lensational, are a great example of how this gap can be bridged.

The theme of International Women’s Day, 2019, which falls on March 8th, is “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. #IWD2019

With women still a minority in science, technology & related innovation, it’s time to shine a spotlight on female innovation champions! Enjoy our Women Innovators Around The World series, where we profile 19 inspiring women innovators, from 19 countries, whose work has a big social impact.

Want to know what other innovations women around the world have pioneered? Read about Soudeh Rad here.

Image source: YouTube

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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a

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