Sex and garment workers: life thru her lens

Hong Kong (Hong Kong)

Hong Kong-born Bonnie Chiu is inviting everyone to step into the worlds of garment workers in Bangladesh, sex workers in Pakistan and domestic workers in Hong Kong, by allowing us to see into their real lives through their eyes – literally.

In 2011, a chance encounter taking photos with four local Turkish girls in Istanbul gave Chiu the inspiration to start photography workshops: “The girls wore hijab and they were quite young, around 16-years-old,” she recalls. “The media has a certain portrayal of Muslim girls. It was just so interesting to see things a different way, which was somewhat contradictory to these misconceptions.”

Of the world’s 796 million illiterate adults, 64 percent are women. Another form of expression, photography is not always accessible in every corner of the developing world, so Chiu decided to encourage women to tell their own ‘herstories’ through the art. With two other girls also from Hong Kong, the 20-year-old set up Lensational to empower women emotionally and economically by providing recycled cameras, photography workshops and setting up exhibitions and photography sales all around the world.

Launched on International Women’s Day in 2013, and based in London and Hong Kong, Lensational has now trained women and girls in 23 countries, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Bhutan and Thailand. They have more volunteers spread across the world, and plans to expand into Kenya, Ethiopia and Tunisia.

As shutters click from Pakistan to Bhutan, we are given a small window into various worlds where women can fulfil and frame their aspirations and we are reminded that as people we are all different, but all equal. Most come from marginalised communities and endure hardship and social isolation. The workshops help to rebuild confidence and enhance interpersonal skills.

Some women are interested in becoming citizen photojournalists. At one exhibition, ‘Unfurling Bangladesh: The Picture Through Her Eyes’, intimate snapshots seen from the eyes of the surfer girls of Cox’s Bazar and garment factory workers in Dhaka defy oppression in a locale where the textile industry remains haunted by incidents of labour rights abuses and surfing for girls remains frowned upon. Chiu loves that the art and universal language of photography creates empathy and understanding without geographical limits, and that for one of her students in the Philippines, taking photos of birds has given them “the courage to fly away”.

Lensational’s next steps are to strengthen a long-term support for students through a mentorship programme, find more partners who can provide economic opportunities for the talented photographers, and to increase the power and reach of campaigns to champion women’s rights across the world.

Bonnie is passionate that creativity and design provide a great way to learn about cultures. “We learn from the women’s photographs and stories how their cultures affect the realities they live in, for better or for worse,” she adds. “The world is diverse with all its cultures, and we need a shared, diverse understanding of what a better future for all actually means. Otherwise, we risk imposing a single definition rooted in a particular culture, to the rest of the world.”

Lensational is responding to the coronavirus pandemic by sharing visual advocacy around prevention and protection, documenting women’s experiences and using photo therapy.

There is already emerging evidence that domestic abuse has gone up since the lockdown began in some countries.

“Women and girls – shouldering majority of the care responsibilities and household decisions – experience this crisis differently.”

Lensational is uniquely placed to ensure that women and girls’ experiences are documented and Bonnie plans to keep advocating for low-income women in these challenging times, like pharmacists:

AtlasAction: Be an advocate for gender diversity. Purchase from the diverse and female-centric stock of photographs and become a Lensational patron. Get in touch.

Written by

Lisa Goldapple, Editor, Atlas of the Future (14 August 2019)

Project leader

Bonnie Chiu, Co-Founder and CEO


This project has been selected as part of CultureFutures, a new storytelling project that maps creative and cultural projects with a social mission – and the artists, collectives and entrepreneurs behind them.

Atlas of the Future is excited to join forces with Goldsmiths Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship and the British Council Creative Economy.

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Courage to drive

Courage to drive


Surf girls – Bangladesh


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