Lensational at 10: Celebrating a decade of beauty, resilience and dignity
by Lydia Wanjiku
I have been reflecting on the best way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Lensational, which happens to coincide with International Women’s Day. It has been challenging to condense a decade’s worth of work into a concise blog post, however what is undeniably certain is the I would love to highlight is the impact we have made and the lessons we are carrying forward, especially in light of this year’s International Women’s Day theme by the UN, “Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality.”
Our 10th anniversary is a significant milestone for us, and it symbolises our resilience and dedication to our mission. Despite facing challenges and setbacks where we’ve had to navigate through funding uncertainties, operational challenges, and the global pandemic, to name a few, we have persevered and grown stronger over time.
While there is much to share about our journey, I had a conversation with our Founder, Bonnie Chiu, which has resonated with me.
“If there are three words that I would use to sum up the last decade it would be: Beauty, Resilience, and Dignity”
She encapsulated the essence of Lensational’s work over the past decade in these three words. I couldn’t agree more and it’s upon these words that I will anchor our reflections on this and the coming decade.
When we reflect on the concept of beauty and how it relates to our work at Lensational, a multitude of thoughts and emotions come to mind. In our experience beauty is more than just a visual aesthetic; it is a holistic representation of the women we work with and the lasting impressions they leave on us through their lived experiences.
We are first reminded of the beauty that emanates from their stories. These stories encapsulate their unique perspectives, experiences, and aspirations, and are a reflection of the diverse backgrounds they come from. From garment workers in Bangladesh to isolated women in the Himalayas, from foreign domestic workers in HongKong to indigenous Maasai women in Kenya, we have continually been moved and deeply inspired by the incredibly unique perspectives and insights that these amazing women bring to the world.
This first picture that reminds us of beauty is this picture of rose with the background of Dakar the capital of Bangladesh.
This photo, taken by a garment worker from Bangladesh, captures the idea that there is immense beauty in the world. No matter how challenging life may become, holding onto the beauty that surrounds us can help us find a way forward.
Another image that immediately springs to mind for me is a photograph by Claire Metito featuring three joyful and robust calves.
This picture was taken in Esiteti village, Amboseli, Kenya, following a prolonged drought period. A night of rain had provided some pasture for livestock to grow. Livestock is vital for the Maasai community, and Claire was fascinated by the calves’ good health, reflected in their shiny, lustrous coats resulting from the availability of lush grazing land. To Claire and her community, the joy of the calves and their well-being represented a symbol of hope that things would improve.
These two are good examples of how these womens’ diverse backgrounds and experiences endow them with a unique perspective that enables them to see the world in their own light, and their photographs offer us a breathtaking and priceless glimpse into these distinct viewpoints. Through their lenses, they remind us that beauty exists everywhere, even in the face of adversity and harsh realities.
The second aspect of beauty that we associate with our work is the privilege we have of observing the incredible growth and confidence that blossoms within the women we work with as they acquire new skills and use photography to share their stories with the world. Witnessing this newfound sense of empowerment and agency is a truly heartwarming experience, and it reaffirms our belief in the remarkable power of digital storytelling to drive positive change.
An anecdote I love to share is an experience I witnessed during a policy workshop in Kenya, a culmination of a programme that we run in collaboration with NAP GN. During this workshop in Kenya we brought our indigenous Maasai female photographers together with climate adaptation policy makers to discuss the stories developed by the women depicting their experiences with climate change and what adaptation means to them. I recall feeling uncertain about whether the policy makers would be receptive.
What stuck with me was that they came in donning their formal and stern demeanour.
Resilience is a crucial element of our work, one that we hold dear and that is embodied by the remarkable women we collaborate with, as well as our own team.
The women we work with have faced numerous challenges and obstacles, yet they continue to push forward with determination and grit. One group of women who have taught us the most about resilience are the indigenous Maasai women in Kenya. For generations, they have been the guardians of their land, but they are now facing the devastating effects of climate change. The effects of climate change have been devastating for the Maasai women, with prolonged droughts, erratic weather patterns, and declining access to natural resources. Despite these daunting challenges, the Maasai women have remained remarkably resilient, drawing upon their ancient traditions and resourcefulness to adapt, survive and protect their families and livelihoods.
I am reminded of Kiragosho, a livestock and crop farmer from Melili Narok, Kenya, whose resilience is beautifully captured in a photo by her niece, Irene Naneu. Despite facing prolonged periods of drought, Kiragosho persists in finding innovative ways to till her land and cultivate crops that can withstand the harsh conditions prevalent in the region.
This strength and perseverance serves as a reminder for all of us, inspiring us to stand up for what we believe in and work towards a better future for ourselves and our planet.
The journey of Lensational has also required a great deal of resilience. It has been an incredible journey, filled with both triumphs and challenges. From our humble beginnings as a small project in Hong Kong, in the early years, when many doubted our mission. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, when funding was scarce and uncertainty was high and we persisted and adapted to what we are today a global movement with steady operations and gradually expanding to reach women in all corners of the world.
But we know that our journey is far from over, and recognise that our resilience is not only reflected in our ability to adapt to new challenges but also in the steadfast dedication of our team, volunteers, and supporters. Our collective resilience and passion for our mission has kept us going, even when the road ahead seemed uncertain or difficult. We have formed strong partnerships and a community of individuals who share our values and believe in the power of digital storytelling to make a difference in the lives of the women we serve and create positive social impact.
Dignity is at the heart of all the work that we do. Our training principle is based on the belief that all personal accounts documented by the women must be represented with utmost respect and dignity. We strive to empower the women we work with to share their stories in their own voices and on their own terms.
In fact, it’s not about us teaching the women, but rather about the women teaching us. We simply provide them with the tools and resources they need to tell their stories, and in the process, they show us the power of agency and the importance of having a voice.
One particular image that comes to mind when we reflect on dignity is a photograph capturing Bonnie’s grandmother, Lin Fa, hugging Anik, one of our photographers, during an exhibition.
Lin Fa’s inspiring story of perseverance through adversity served as the catalyst for the creation of Lensational. This moment feels like a full-circle moment to me. I’m certain that during her difficult upbringing in Medan, Indonesia, as she fled to Hong Kong during an anti-Chinese conflict, she never imagined that she would one day be standing in the midst of the very movement that she helped to inspire.
We are grateful decade of remarkable work, growth, and impact. Despite facing numerous challenges, Lensational has persevered and remained steadfast in its mission to empower women through digital storytelling and we we look ahead it is our hope is that these three words: Beauty, Resilience and Dignity will carry through to our next decade.