Every photograph has the potential to act as an agent of change – a platform, a mediator, an advocate – sharing the perspective of a photographer and illuminating truths from their storytelling. Putting cameras in the hands of marginalised communities offers a new perspective to the media landscape, with many of these stories now driving positive change to social justice and climate change at a grassroots level.
More than a century ago, photography was created as a way to capture a moment in time as it was and forever will be. Over time, the method of capturing photographs changed drastically with camera technology and techniques shifting the industry in favour of an instantaneous final product. The growing accessibility, affordability and overall ease of taking photographs saw the artform become an accepted part of everyday traditions, cultures and behaviours of people in almost every corner of the world.
Yet, with all these changes to method and practice, the purpose of photography always remained the same. Photography acts as a powerful means for an artist to share a truth about their subject through an image. The social enterprise, and now global movement, Lensational, are using the truths photography can illuminate to empower marginalised women by providing a platform to share their diverse perspectives.
“By capturing vulnerability in a frame, photography has the ability to ignite an emotional connection and empowerment to stories that might otherwise go untold.”
EMPOWERMENT OF SHARED VULNERABILITY
In a society saturated by smart phones and photographs shared on social media, the power of photography is sometimes lost. Yet for others, it is the most valuable source of storytelling – one that allows them to share their truths, and insights into the vulnerability their circumstances. By capturing vulnerability in a frame, photography has the ability to ignite an emotional connection and empowerment to stories that might otherwise go untold.
Lensational was founded on this very principle in 2013 by Bonnie Chiu and has since grown to become a youth-led network of 100 volunteers in 23 countries providing workshops and training to marginalised women. Lensational provides a platform for more than 600 women to share their perspectives on education, coming of age, disability, and social issues like domestic work conditions, human trafficking, and the growing impact of climate change.
“This [scope] transcends a spectrum of stories; from domestic workers in Hong Kong, ethnic minorities in the Thai/ Myanmar border, plastic collectors in Ghana, the Maasai people in Kenya and many more.”
THE LENSATIONAL MODEL
Lensational is driven to empower women in countries where gender issues are more acute. They equip women cameras and teach them photography and videography so they can document their stories. Their artwork is sold via the Lensational store and corporate sales partners. 50% of the profits help to support ongoing programs, and the other 50% goes directly to the artists as a means to diversify their sources of income. It is a model that uses research, education, collaboration and ongoing training to achieve economic and emotional empowerment.
Before identifying a program location, a research team investigates global trends and indices of gender equality and education to gauge marginalisation in communities. This has led to programs empowering domestic workers in Hong Kong, ethnic minorities living on the Thai–Myanmar border, plastic collectors in Ghana, the Maasai people in Kenya and hundreds of others. The team then works with not-for-profits, charities and community partners on the ground, who help to facilitate the implementation of the program.
Each program operates on a virtuous model, which equips women with donated cameras and smart phones from corporate partners or donations from collection points in London, New York, Melbourne and Hong Kong. A professional photographer or videographer then conducts workshops where participants are taught a set curriculum of camera techniques, storytelling and emotional expression. Lensational also support ongoing training and workshops, as well as facilitate applications for grants, fellowships and competitions for women to grow their photography skills and income.
“Through photographs of their local environment and its degradation, of resource shortages and land management, Lensational is helping women around the world share a valuable, female perspective on environmental conservation.”
A COMMON THREAD
In recent years, the team have observed a similarity in their diverse portfolio of voices, regardless of where or when a program takes place – environmental activism. Through photographs of their local environment and its degradation, of resource shortages and land management, this collective works from women around the world now offers a valuable, female perspective on environmental conservation.
Research has long indicated that women will be the most impacted by climate change, and now, the photographs from participants are providing personal stories of women’s struggles with climate change. Lensational’s recent Kickstarter project, ‘Our Shared Forest’, features the work of 27 photographers from Asia and Africa sharing their perspectives on climate change from behind and in front of the lens. Most importantly, these stories share a historically underrepresented perspective on climate change.
In their most recent program with the Maasai people of Kenya, Lensational helped reshape traditions and change the role of women. Having never engaged in conservation efforts due to patriarchal norms, Masaai women are now proud, watchful guardians of local wildlife, helping to prevent poaching. They are also using photography to document wildlife so the newly instated all-female ranger group can track their movements and whereabouts. And on the Thai–Myanmar border, Burmese and hill tribe women at risk of human trafficking leveraged their knowledge of the mountains and local resources to build and operate an eco-lodge, which has created new opportunities for employment and a safe future.
These stories share a powerful perspective on the ongoing climate crisis, with the voice of women from different corners of the world now saying:this is a global issue that affects women all around the world, I’m doing my part to make a difference, what action will you take?
By giving women the tools and agency to participate, Lensational are training the next generation of female photographers and filmmakers. While the last decade has seen a growing interest in diversifying voices in photography and photojournalism, there is still a way to go. By bringing the work of marginalised women into mainstream media, Lensational have helped elevate social issues at a grassroots level. They are sharing stories of women from different circumstances who are united by strength and a deep connection with the environment and their role in its future.