Innovative social entrepreneur is improving the world … in her downtime.
By Debra Spark
Six years ago, Leeh Ann Hidalgo was not exactly happy. And why should she be? In 2012, she’d moved to Hong Kong from the Philippines to take a job as a domestic worker. She’d come to support her family back home: a mother and four siblings. No one was suggesting good times ahead. Domestic work in Hong Kong is famously low-paying, domestic workers famously ill-treated. After a year in the country, Leeh Ann was feeling “bored and homesick,” she says. One day, while searching for groups on social media, she discovered Lensational. The organization was offering a photography workshop, cameras supplied. She decided to attend, joining approximately 15 other Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers for classes.
And her life changed. Not completely, but definitely for the better.
By any measure, Lensational is a feel-good story about a feel-bad situation. The not-for-profit-provides cameras and training to marginalized women in African and Asian developing countries, so they can document their lives and receive the therapeutic benefit of self-expression, as well as the personal rewards of exhibiting and monetizing their art work.
The class Leeh Ann found online was conducted, as all Lensational workshops are, by a volunteer photographer who has been screened and trained. Leeh Ann found herself drawn to street photography, often producing images that served as metaphor or her disconnection from the outside world. Ironically, the photography became a way of mitigating that very isolation. Leeh Anne now had a way to connect to the city. Eventually, she sold and exhibited some work, was hired for a few photography gigs and even taught a photography workshop (in partnership with Lensational) back in the Philippines.
All this hasn’t been enough for Leeh Ann to find permanent work as a photographer, but on a recent April day, she did two things that might not have been possible without the skills and confidence she acquired through Lensational: she spoke at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council about the status of migrant workers, and she used he day off to photograph Chinese market vendors on break. “I see myself in them. We have different jobs, but we are going through the same thing.” Leeh Ann.
In Hong Kong, Lensational’s workshops targeted domestic workers. In Bangladesh, the daughters of textile workers. In Pakistan, the children of sex workers. In Vietnam, the disabled. In Ghana, young girls denied education. In Nepal, women-led farms. Through research into each country, Lensational identifies a central problem for women. Education? Access to health care? Human trafficking? Clean water? (They never pick “marginalized status,” since that is a given.) Lensational then works (often with an on-the-ground partner organization) to resource women struggling with that issue.
The goals are grand, but the business model is relatively simple. The organization 1) gives participants recycled cameras, 2) offers photography and video workshops, 3) sells participants’ photographs online (via Lensational’s website or through corporate sales partners, dividing profits 50/50, with Lensational’s 50 percent going back to programming) and 4) uses its partnerships to provide additional training for interested students.
With such a wide international reach and lofty ambitions, you might expect the organization to be run by a social entrepreneur bigwig. And it is, but that entrepreneur happens to be the super- articulate, uber-smart, profoundly compassionate, entirely humble Bonnie Chiu, a 26-year-old woman raised in Hong Kong and now based in London. With a volunteer staff, she runs Lensational in her “free” time, which is not all that free. Bonnie works 50 hours a week for the Social Investment Consultancy, an international firm that advises on social innovation and impact investing, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion.
No wonder Forbes gave Bonnie a 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur in Europe award in 2017.
Bonnie has always been inclined to give. At 16, as part of a student social entrepreneurship program, she started her first business, making reusable coffee cups with design-it-yourself interiors. Thirty-five percent of the profits went to Make-a- Wish-Foundation. From the start, doing good and art were intertwined. The focus on gender equality came later, as she segued from an all-girls school into Global Business Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and then a masters program in International Relations and Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Through her studies, she grew increasingly concerned about the international plight of women and was struck by the fact that women represent two-thirds of the illiterate population. Her own grandmother, an Indonesian refugee to Hong Kong, grew up poor and did not know how to read and write—yet Bonnie knew how wise she was. The more Bonnie learned, the more she contextualized her grandmother’s experience within the global female experience.
Bonnie grew up middle-class with access to education. Her parents both worked full-time—Hong Kong is pricey!—with “in-house” childcare provided by her grandmother, just 48 when Bonnie was born.
When Bonnie tells Lensational’s origin story, she talks about a visit to Turkey, where (despite a language barrier) she was able to communicate with some local girls who seemed interested in her camera. She was struck by the boundary-crossing power of the lens, but the roots for Lensational—cleverly launched on International Women’s Day in 2013—were growing much earlier.
Bonnie got her first camera (a Cannon G-10) around the time her grandmother started photographing the orchids she tended at home. Here was a way her grandmother could communicate about her world and what she most loved.
What is Lensational but putting cameras in the hands of women, so they too can communicate about their world?
As of now, Lensational has taught 800 women in 23 countries. Initially, Lensational focused on pilot projects. Now, fewer projects are going on at any one time, but those projects are more involved. Lensational is continuing its work with domestic workers in Hong Kong while working on projects in Kenya, Ghana and Sri Lanka. When possible, Lensational partners with a local organization already working with women and girls, adding value to existing efforts.
Lydia Kibandi Wanjiku, Lensational’s program manager in Kenya, has worked on two such projects. She first worked with Lensational in Mathare (one of the country’s largest slums). There, Lensational partnered with the Mathare Foundation, which empowers children through photography and sports. Now, Lydia is focusing on an animal poaching project in the Masai Mara. The International Animal Welfare Fund wanted to create “female engagement teams in Masai to use the power of women to protect elephants in the region,” says Bonnie. Equipping women with digital phones and photography lessons, Lensational helped women train the lens on the animals. Kenya has “an incredibly patriarchal culture,” says Bonnie, “and one unintended consequence of the project is that it helped demystify technology” for women who “don’t believe they can use technology.” In the past, they simply relied on their husbands.
To date, Lensational has had better luck selling to corporations than on its online platform. And though it would be hard to argue that anything is more important than money in an impoverished community, the biggest value may be Lensational’s art exhibitions, especially in areas where they have been a particular success, as with an exhibition in India, where Lensational partnered with a photography festival. “The pride in exhibiting in public space is incredible,” says Bonnie, “as is recognition from the press and the opportunity to speak directly to the press.” In India, oversized exhibition images were featured at metro stations, promoting public awareness of the project and what the women had achieved.
Beyond emotional and economic empowerment, Lensational’s “citizen photojournalists,” as Bonnie calls them, are speaking to the world. Some former participants are genuine artists. Some are not as talented. Whatever the case, their images are now online, and their voices and visions have a chance to be heard and seen, to travel far and to land anywhere. Even before your eyes.
Clockwise, from top left: Encapsulated by Leeh Ann Hidalgo, Market Vendor by Naw Aye Aye Thet, The Photographer by Millicent Lodenyi, Unknown and Imprisoned by Leeh Ann Hidalgo
Featured image: In Ghana, Lensational is collaborating with KickStart Ghana, a UK and Ghanaian registered charity/NGO based in Ho, to offer teenage girls photography workshops as an extra-curricular education opportunity, enabling the girls to tell their own stories through the powerful tool of photography and encouraging them to stay committed to their educational aspirations. (Image courtesy Lensational Photography)