Lensational – Empowering Women through Photography

Lensational aims to empower marginalized women in developing countries through equipping them with digital training and photography skills. And of course, a camera that they can take photos with and make their voices heard through their photos.

There are approximately 520 Million women in the world that cannot read or write. Most of them live in developing countries and these women don’t have the same chances in life as others in developed countries have. They often stay poor most of their lives and they work and live under difficult conditions.

Meet Bonnie Chiu, born and raised in Hong Kong, and founder of Lensational, a non-profit organization that helps these marginalized women to earn a living through photography. While Bonnie was travelling Turkey at the age of 18 she had a life changing experience and she felt it was her duty to support women in making their voices heard. She founded a company that would train women in how to use digital cameras and take photographs and then sell these on global sales channels. This way the women can not only earn their own money but they can express themselves and their emotions and life stories throughout their photos. Lensational is now based in London but has a team of volunteers worldwide to support the trainings and give more and more women a voice.

Bonnie Chiu & Vanessa Lee (Credit: Vodafone Institute)

F-Lane: Tell us a little bit about the idea for Lensational and how this idea started to turn into a business?

Bonnie: Back in 2012 I was travelling in Turkey. I was 18 years old at the time and I was travelling with my friends. We were taking pictures in a palace in Istanbul when four Turkish girls came up to me and asked if they could take pictures with me. We started taking photos together, I taught them how to use my camera and that experience was really special to me. I realized how deeply we connected through photography and how this was actually the first time that I met Muslim girls who are very similar to me as a person. But on the outside – without ever speaking to them or getting to know them and taking photos together – I probably would not have seen their perspectives. This made me think a lot about the potential of photography as a universal language, a transcultural language. And it made me think how photographs actually allow people from different countries and different cultures to see and get to know each other’s perspectives.

At the same time I also realized that photography is not available to so many people across the world. If we just start with women who cannot read and write and who are poor, that’s 520 Million women today and I was thinking: How can these women share their stories with the world and how can we not know their perspective if we are to create a world of share prosperity and equality. This was the first seed.

I then learned a lot about different models like social enterprises that can actually wrap this idea into a vehicle that is sustainable. And then I went through quite a lot of competitions to work this up in a business plan. This was between September 2012 and March 2013. Unfortunately, I often came to the point when (often male) judges told me this was not going to work. They told me to not waste my time.

F-Lane: But this feedback obviously did not stop you? How did you then continue to pursue your idea?

Bonnie: There was a moment, just a few days before the Women’s Day in 2013, when I got another bad feedback – a male professor at my University basically told me: You’re a smart girl. Don’t waste your time on this. You have better things waiting for you. I felt very disheartened but actually on Women’s Day itself I saw so many inspirational stories of what women were doing for each other. I felt, I needed to do something and I felt that I had a good idea at hand. So I started a Facebook page on that day. I wanted to get the word out and it just started to grow organically from there.

F-Lane: How did you then come up with the name Lensational?

Bonnie: Right at the beginning in September 2012 when I shared this experience with a few of my other classmates at University, we brainstormed together. The idea was about empowering women through photography, it was about the lens – the stories itself then were really about the sensations and women’s emotions and I wanted to combine this emotional empowerment aspect with the camera lens into something catchy. And that became Lensational.

F-Lane: You started with a Facebook page which started to grow. When did you actually found the company?

Bonnie: There were actually two births of the company. One was in September 2013 back in Hong Kong, my hometown, where I basically started out developing the idea and also went public with it. But even though I love my home very dearly it is just not the market to build a global business. And that was my goal – I always wanted to go global. I then moved to London in 2014, to pursue my Master, and then I officially founded Lensational in March 2015. And that is the real birth of Lensational as it is today.

F-Lane: When you founded your company you were still in University so you didn’t have to leave a job for your company. But what did your family and friends think of your business idea and that you were going to become a female founder?

Bonnie: I have a little cousin that I actually see more as a sister. And I think she didn’t really understand it – she was 9 years old when I started and she thought I was a war journalist. That was the closest thing that she could relate to what I was doing – women in developing countries telling stories through their photos. That was what she was thinking.

Most of my classmates went into finance – I studied business – and they didn’t really get the idea and thought I was a bit crazy. However, now they feel I made a really good move. I have been able to get so many opportunities that otherwise would not have been available to me at such a young age.

My family is surprisingly supportive and I am very thankful for my family. They never doubted anything I did. All they wanted was for me to be happy.  Around two years into Lensational I actually started thinking about what the actual reason for me was to do this. Why do I feel so passionate about women whose voices are not heard? And actually it is because of my grandmother. I started telling more people about my grandmother because it was so deep in me I didn’t realize it at first. She fled Indonesia as a young child because of anti-Chinese protesting in Indonesia where she was born. I was raised by her and growing up she always used to tell me these stories about how she was very poor and she had to work in construction sites and then work in factories. Just by her telling me these stories about her suffering and how she emerged out of it because she was a very strong and resilient person I realized that from her I get so much energy. And with her being illiterate I started to realize that without me her stories would never be heard. And her story is very worthy.

The idea for Lensational didn’t come from my grandmother but the drive to continuously pursue this idea came from her. And once my family realized that this was actually a family project we should get behind they were actually the first ones that liked my Facebook Page and up to this day they always the first ones liking what we share and they are always the first ones to come to our exhibitions. If they were to judge me it would definitely be for the value I bring to the world. They see that and they support that.

F-Lane: What was a first challenge for you?

Bonnie: There were so many challenges.  But around two months after I started the Facebook page I had to admit to myself I was only reaching out to my friends and family. And they are not the ones who can take it to the next level. I needed to get a bigger reach to the women that I wanted to reach. In the beginning it was mostly domestic workers in Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong. And I needed to get people to donate cameras we could then use for the trainings. To sum it up, I needed to speak to a wider audience. And I didn’t know how to do that.

I then went to my University and asked for the PR department to help us do a press conference. I remember being really scared that nobody would attend. But the six journalists came and we got major news coverage in Hong Kong and that was when people wrote to us asking if they could donate their cameras. More people started liking our Facebook page. I think that when starting out and you don’t have any money, getting the word out is the most important and I was very fortunate that I got this first attention through the network of my University.

F-Lane: Speaking of money.  How did you manage financially in the beginning?

Bonnie: In late March 2013 I joined a competition organized by Resolution Project based in New York. They are very focussed on undergraduate students who want to start their own social ventures during University. They believe it’s the best time to convert students to pursue a career with a social mission. And also you have so much time as a student to do something and I was very fortunate to have got the fellowship and a small seed capital. It wasn’t a lot of money but it helped us to get started. That was the first step up and I was very lucky that they believed in me and my idea and wanted to support me. They appreciated the story.

F-Lane: What was the first highlight for Lensational?

Bonnie: It was definitely our first class with a group of 15 domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines. The first exercise we did was we asked them to introduce themselves with a photo. But not a photo of themselves because that was boring. They needed to go out and take a photo and be creative. I remember one of the students who is now the student that makes me the proudest and who makes me realize our value the most is Jem from the Philippines. She took a photo of a chocolate fondue in the canteen next door. And she shared her story saying: When you look at chocolate fondue it’s just brown, it’s not very attractive. And people look at me and think I am a lesbian because I have short hair and look more of a tomboy. But if you do care and crack inside the chocolate fondue you see a whole different story. You see the chocolate lava coming out and it tastes good. And similarly if people care to look deeper in me and not judging me by the surface they would discover something they didn’t expect.

That was a strong message that stuck with me. I was really blown away by the depth of her story and how you can break the barriers with a photo. With photography you have the power to break these barriers and when Jem shared her stories I again saw how a photo can break the barriers people have in communication. You can simply present yourself differently and that was definitely a highlight, an absolute “Wow” moment. And I felt this was the right thing to do.

F-Lane: Now you actually have employees and your first full-time employee, Vanessa, is with you here in Berlin. Vanessa, how did you first encounter Lensational and what made you join Bonnie in her journey?

Vanessa: I first encountered Lensational through their exhibition on domestic worker and I know it is common in Hong Kong, where I am also from, and I always felt it was strange but I never really got any deeper into it. It was only at the exhibition when I really started to question it. Was it right to have domestic workers that was working for a family from 7 am until 11 pm? And I knew it wasn’t right and it was through meeting Lensational that I knew I had to contribute something to this cause and that I’d like to showcase the voices of these women who are just the same as me. For me that was the reason to join as a volunteer and then I went on full-time. I definitely wanted to make a difference in a male dominated world and if I could change anything in the world I wanted to contribute to make the change happen.

F-Lane: Where do you see Lensational from your perspective?

Vanessa: I think we are at a point where Lensational could really take off. We just need to find the right support and understanding in the investment community to back us and to see the potential that Lensational has. I do see the potential; I think we need to find the right market and the right partner.

F-Lane: What’s happening in 2017? What are the next steps?

Bonnie: In 2017 we want to put a lot of energy in raising funds. I have often shied away from it and I actually think it might be a common challenge or an obstacle that you observe among female entrepreneurs but now I have a frame of mind. When I face some difficulties and then have my natural response I now ask myself: “If I was a guy would I also think that way?” And now I start realizing that the guy would just tell people he needed this amount of money in order to grow the business. Our focus is to raise 400.000 US-Dollars over the course of two years.  That would allow us to grow our program’s teams and have them properly staffed in Southeast Asia and we could also have a team in London or Berlin to support them.  And then on the business side we’d hopefully have more people join Vanessa to sell as many photographs as possible and find as many corporate partners as we can so that we can help them bring value to their employees and help the female production worker s in their supply chain. Raising funds is the most important goal in 2017.

F-Lane: How about in five years?

Bonnie: If we do reach our target this year in five years time we will be able to train 30.000 women directly. So far we have been able to train 600 women but if we do have that core staff team mobilizing our global community, we’ll be able to reach that number. We are also looking into developing a mobile app that will enable women who own smartphones or women we can help to own smartphones they can learn on the go with the app and they can connect with other women in different countries through the app.  We can see having a strong community by 2022 of 30.000 women and more who otherwise won’t have their voices heard on this global stage.

We actually have a 7 year vision – we want to reach 1 million women by 2025. So beyond that 5 year point we will have a strong community and we will just make the app open to all women who want to join. We see organic growth beyond that five year plan and I think 1 million women by 2025 are possible.

F-Lane: What is your tip for aspiring female entrepreneurs?

Bonnie: There are so many tips but just think about “What would a man do in my situation?” Change the perspective – it really helps me at times to think about it and try to see my situation through different eyes.

 

The interview was conducted and written by Christina Richter from FIELFALT, the community and blogazine for female empowerment. FIELFALT wants to encourage women to leave their comfort zones to dare something and to achieve their goals and realize their dreams.