Photography for Prosperity: Reflections

By Bonnie Chiu

Can photography be a transformative tool towards global prosperity?

This was the question Lensational was challenged to address, in a panel event organised by our partner, the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity.

Lensational sees photography as a tool to empower women. To expand on the notion of empowerment, we adopt the framework of Professor Naila Kabeer that sees empowerment as a process that involves resources, agency, and achievements. The women’s agency became the critical focus of change, and we see photography as crucial to expanding the sense of agency — the power within — of the women. The purpose of our presentation was to highlight the potential of tailored photography programmes to empower participants — in this case women in developing countries — both emotionally and economically. Particular attention was given to the impact of these interventions in terms of influencing the self-perception of participants, its ability to help challenge norms and create bonds that go beyond those of existing communities, and hence opening the door to prosperity.

We were joined together by two very esteemed speakers, Max Colson, a former artist-in-residence at UCL Urban Laboratory; and Dr Jay Mistry, a Reader at Royal Holloway University and Project Coordinator of COBRA.

I was joined by Max and Jay who both use photography in their academic research.

We had the chance to reflect on our methodology, particularly around engaging with local communities and the post-production process of images. As Jay explained, project COBRA has a very structured process, providing training to indigenous local researchers so that they learn how to use different visual methods in a participatory way. These individuals are then encouraged to pass on these skills within their communities. She highlighted the importance of seeing participatory photography programmes as iterative — they have at least three iterations before images become photo stories. The train-the-trainer model is definitely a paradigm that Lensational needs to further develop in order to encourage true autonomy in taking pictures at the local level.

Project COBRA aims to showcase indigenous solutions for the management of natural resources that could in turn inspire development policies and projects. Image credits to Project COBRA.

Jay also discussed innovative ways whereby engagement happens. With their ten partners across South America and Europe, different indigenous communities were able to share their perspectives on common issues that affect them through producing photo stories and films. Cross-cultural sharing is something that Lensational also hopes to explore, as we are now working in different countries — particularly Pakistan, Bangladesh and soon, India, which have historical grievances that keep them apart from each other.

Max took a more cautious note on what photography can achieve, especially in the context of advertising by corporates that infiltrate every aspect of our urban life. His research predominantly revolves around photography in the context of security in the urban setting. He challenged the audience to question the reliability of photography in story telling given the advances and mainstreaming of sophisticated photo-editing capabilities. In his eyes, boundaries between fiction and reality in images are increasingly blurred, while the narratives accompanying them are being re-appropriated, consolidated and diffused for unprecedented impact. This is particulary true for cities. It creates a sense of intrusion and surveillance, which translates into his work, in which he conceptualizes and manipulates images with ease.

An image from Max’s ‘Hide and seek’ project, in which a fictive photojournalist goes on a mission to uncover the role of vegetation in the securitisation of public urban spaces. He finds that plants — depicted as ‘suspects’ in this series — soften the perceived sense of surveillance, effectively nudging human behaviour. Image credits to Max Colson.

By sharing insights from their respective disciplines, discussions like these are essential to the development of young organisations like Lensational . For example, while we seek to use photography for social good, we have to be aware of the other side of the coin — as highlighted by researchers like Max — who understands photography as a tool for manipulation. As a social enterprise that sells photos to individual consumers in addition to brands, the issue of manipulation is one that we need to consider extremely carefully. Cross-disciplinary discussions and partnerships like these allow for productive exchange of ideas, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of your sector, while suggesting alternative ways of working within it.

Bonnie Chiu is the Co-Founder and CEO of Lensational. Her research for Lensational has been shortlisted by the Graduate Institute, Geneva, more information here. If you have any feedback on our research work, you can contact our research team at research@lensational.org.

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