A treasure of untold stories
My name is Lydia Wanjiku, CEO at Lensational. I joined Lensational in February 2015 after learning about it through a tweet by Hivos International about an organization empowering women using photography. I will tell a story of visual stories, and how these are told through the eyes of many women at the frontline of climate change.
It is the early 90’s, the place is Hong Kong. Little Bonnie Chiu lives with her grandmother Lin Fa. Bonnie grew up listening to the horrific stories of how her grandmother had to struggle to make ends meet after fleeing her home in Medan Indonesia to Hong Kong during an anti-Chinese contest. With her grandmother being illiterate Bonnie realized that, without her to hear and tell these experiences, her grandma’s stories would never be heard. An experience that cultivated a passion for women with similar backgrounds. A later encounter in Turkey would cement this experience with the next steps.
While travelling in Turkey in 2012, Bonnie was taking pictures with friends in a palace in Istanbul. Four Turkish girls approached her and asked her to take pictures of them and teach them how to take pictures. They connected very deeply. On connecting later through social media, Bonnie realised how they captioned their images which were contrary to the stereotypes associated with Muslim women. This made Bonnie think of the potential of photography as a universal language transcending words, geography and cultural barriers.
Drawing from her own and shared experiences while travelling, Bonnie understood how women are powerful agents of change and the treasurers of many stories. She was determined to be a catalyst for these stories to be heard, for these women’s work to be seen. This was the origin of Lensational, founded by Bonnie in 2013. Lensational is focused on both, the capability building for visual storytelling, as well as creating a source of income for low-income community women in, among other regions, through the sale of their images and commissioned assignments.
One of the main challenges I noted when I joined the organization is that, although we were achieving a great breadth of reach, we were missing the depth of impact.
The women we work with are often women from little to no education background, often from poor economic backgrounds. Women who live the impacts of climate change on a day-to-day basis. Living at the frontline of climate change, their main priority is to be able to advance their lives in a way that allows them to be able to sustainably provide for their children and families and for us real impact is being able to meet them at their points of need.
Climate action in images
What has been fascinating to understand, however, is that although the women we work with are women who feel the impacts of climate change in their daily lives in a very tangible way, they are not engaged in the climate conversation. Their realities are happening separately from the global climate movement. And we really get to see this when we speak to them.
Our conversations do not revolve around carbon emissions or adaptation plans. We are talking in two different languages. The women’s language is not impregnated with the climate action movement. The way they speak about climate change is much in how it affects them, but they are not aware that there was a movement trying to curb the issues they are going through. They are not aware that they could be part of it or play a role. They are just trying to deal with it at their own level.
The women are the experts and the solution creators to adapt and tackle the effects of climate change in their lives. Through a conscious training program, we facilitate the best conditions for them to share their perspectives using photography. To tell their stories, and share what resilience looks like for them.
At the end of the training period, a pool of knowledge is built as photo essays. This visual knowledge is used to engage policymakers and stakeholders in dialogue through participatory workshops in diverse formats: toundtable discussions, online gallery photo exhibitions, photo books and postcards To give a glimpse of this work, below is a three-fold of such stories.
“My name is Catherine Pilalei, a mother of two. Livestock is our main source of livelihood. Whether to buy food at home or fulfil other obligations like paying school fees for our children, we rely on selling livestock to get income. In addition to this, milk produced by livestock is a staple within our households. However, due to drought, it has become very tough to sell livestock as they are not in good health. Men migrate with the larger herds of cattle, we are left to cater for goats and sheep as well as our children. As a result, women are venturing into new ways through which they can make some money to buy food or get food directly.
Charity and Emmaculate
“My name is Charity, daughter of Immaculate. In Suswa, many women rely on hawking items from natural resources to make a living. My mother is the breadwinner and she is amongst the women who have greatly relied on this as a means of income. For income, mom sells traditional medicine produced from the bark of trees.
However, the rapid deforestation in most areas of the country has led to a shortage of supply in medicine. To maintain a source of income Mom tried her hand at farming growing vegetables in a small kitchen garden for food and sale. And although it is straining under the adverse weather conditions, it is able to produce just enough for us to have food.”
Join our voices for climate action, share the stories of impact
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
For a long time at Lensational we thought it is just enough to empower women to tell their stories, but it is simply not enough to give them a means of expression. These experiences are essential to bend the curve of climate change. Their challenges need to be addressed, their solutions need to be scaled. Policy measures and finance flows need to be re-directed accordingly. We must elevate their voices by pushing their stories out through the necessary channels and partnerships in a way that facilitates dialogue for change.
Founded by Bonnie Chiu, Lensational is a non-profit social enterprise that works to elevate the voices of women from underrepresented groups and communities using storytelling through photography. We are currently working in Kenya, Ghana and Hong Kong.
In addition to elevating the voices of women, one of the main goals for Lensational is to help achieve economic empowerment for the women we work with through the sale of their images and commissioned assignments.