“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” — Virginia Woolf
I was 14 years old. In my first World History class, my teacher scribbled the word “History” on the white board. She asked us to reflect on how the word is constructed. History has always been written by men, and the victorious. Where are the stories of women, and the defeated? That was my early feminist awakening.
Our first exhibition at Lensational was therefore entitled “Herstories”. As it was our inaugural exhibition, it encapsulated the why of Lensational’s existence, but it also took a critical stance on it. I wrote a little poem to accompany it:
In the world of histories,
her voice is silenced.
Let’s uncover herstories,
her sensations through her lenses.
It is a decade since my first World History class, and I have become more aware of my womanhood, and how this overlaps and at times contradicts with my other identities, especially that of a photographer and an entrepreneur. Yet, I have never structured these thoughts until Chennai Photo Biennale’s all-women symposium ‘Beyond Boundaries’; I was honoured to be a speaker alongside Smita Sharma, NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, and Karolin Klüppel.
While the four speakers came from different cultural and academic backgrounds, what linked us were our identities as women photographers and our dedication to the cause of women’s empowerment. Indeed as women, we were shaped by our experiences, and, inevitably, women’s issues have become a persistent theme in our work while we remain cautious to be defined by our gender. The symposium raised the question: is there such a thing as a feminine gaze? Our work seems to demonstrate that there is.
Given our common focus on women’s issues, the moderator, Rosalyn D’Mello asked a slightly provocative question: do we consider ourselves to be feminists? I said: of course I am, and it is important to understand that feminism should not be in contradiction with any religion or culture.
So, I proposed a little experiment with the audience: I asked them to picture a feminist. Who imagined a feminist to be a ‘hairy’ woman who hates men (the stereotype that Karolin mentioned still existed in Germany)? No one raised their hands (this might just be the need to be politically correct). Who imagined a feminist to be Emma Watson? A few raised their hands. Who imagined a feminist to be an Indian woman who you know? Almost the whole room raised their hands, and I was pleasantly surprised. Feminism should not be dictated by other cultures, and the audience at the symposium showed that this is indeed a possibility.
Rosalyn D’Mello, the moderator, asked how our work might transcend or transform boundaries that women often find themselves confined by. I think photography is a tool that can transcend cultural boundaries — it is a universal language. Emotions and thoughts can be evoked from images, often without the need for words.
Apart from transcending cultural boundaries, I also started thinking about whether photography could transcend other types of boundaries that hold girls back from achieving their potential. The exploratory, fluid process of photography enables women to embrace the multiplicities of their identities as mothers, sisters, daughters, partners, friends, colleagues, and, most importantly, as individuals.
“To photograph… means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.” — Susan Sontag, On Photography
In a context where women are often framed and portrayed under the dominant male gaze, equipping women with photographic skills allows them to increase their sense of agency and to reclaim self-hood and identities. Teaching women photography allows them to reverse unequal power dynamics, facilitating the creation of their own, self-determined identities. This was reflected in a photography workshop in Pakistan, when one of the female students posed on a motorbike — in a country where women and girls are rarely seen driving motorbikes.
And at Lensational we believe that, the more we have images like this one, the more boundaries that constitute gender norms will be transformed. Defying gender norms is a process, and we also have to be mindful of the possibility of backlash.
“Art both reflects and influences culture; in partnership with artists and art institutions, we can all evolve the behaviors, norms and perceptions that shape our cultural view of gender.” — He For She’s Arts Week
The world has moved a long way since Virgina Woolf’s times when women often had to remain anonymous. And indeed, there are advantages to being a woman — NayanTara talked about the access and trust that she managed to have to certain subjects being photographed. But as photographers, and especially as women photographers, our work can move the boundaries that hold women and girls back.
Bonnie Chiu launched Lensational in March 2013 in her hometown Hong Kong, and has since expanded Lensational’s programme of teaching women photography to nine countries including India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. She is now based in London where she manages Lensational’s global team of 60 volunteers across 18 countries.
To learn more about the symposium, please read the media feature on The Hindu.