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Bonnie Chiu: A Life in Pictures

Bonnie Chiu is a Rebel who discovered how important a picture can be, not just as a way to express herself, but for girls and women around the world to share their lives and feel empowered.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Emily McMahon-Wattez and Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Carissa Ratanaphanyarat. Our executive producer was Joy Smith. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Hey Rebels! Have you ever heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words?” Take a look around you. How many words would it take to describe where you are right this minute? Are you indoors? Outdoors? Snuggled in bed? Staring up at the sky?

You could probably tell us a lot about it, using hundreds of words, even thousands!

But there would still be some tiny details missing. 

If you take a picture though….you could capture everything around you in an instant. Pretty awesome, right?

Bonnie Chiu is a Rebel who discovered how important a picture can be, not just as a way to express herself, but for girls and women around the world to share their lives and feel empowered

Strap on your cameras, and take a look into Bonnie’s rebel journey…

Picture this: The year was 1992. November 3rd, to be exact. Bonnie Chiu was born in the bustling city of Hong Kong, surrounded by skyscrapers and busy streets, on the coast of South China. Hong Kong is one of the biggest cities in the world, with more than 7 million people living there, all packed in tightly together. 

Like many places in the world, women in Hong Kong have struggled for centuries to be given the same freedoms and rights as men. Bonnie’s own grandmother fled Indonesia as a refugee. She wasn’t able to go to school, so she was never taught to read or write. Still, she found a way to make a living working in a small clothing factory for twenty years.

By the time Bonnie was born in 1992, things were considerably better for women in Hong Kong. Still, Bonnie knew it was a privilege to go to school, to learn and study and become anything she wanted to be. 

When she was sixteen, Bonnie and a group of girls from her school joined a program where they learned how to become entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs start businesses, growing companies from the ground up. And Bonnie’s group didn’t just talk about how to start a business, they actually did it! 

Bonnie’s company made custom coffee mugs. She worked hard at it, and it did so well that she was able to donate almost half of her profits to charity, and still save some for herself. Bonnie won awards for her idea, and for how she had run the company. She even got to talk on the radio about being a teenage entrepreneur!

Bonnie noticed something that bothered her though. Here she was, at an all-girl’s school, running a successful company with her female classmates, but both the mentors for her program were men. Where were all the women entrepreneurs? She soon learned that less than a third of businesses across the world are owned by women. Bonnie knew she had to change this. If men could do it, so could she! 

Now, picture this: one day, when Bonnie was studying business in college, she found out about a contest for business ideas that help empower women.

Bonnie thought about what that meant – empowering women. How could she help give more women the power to do things for themselves?

Bonnie remembered a trip she had taken a few years earlier to the country of Turkey. A group of girls had asked her to take a photo of them with her camera. 

Bonnie gladly took the photo. She also taught the girls how to use the camera so they could take photos of their own. After that, Bonnie and the girls became friends on social media, and Bonnie loved seeing the pictures they posted. Though the captions were in Turkish, Bonnie was struck by how much she learned about their lives. Th3ey showed Bonnie what life in Turkey was really like, without using a single word. Those pictures helped the girls tell their own stories. 

Bonnie also thought about her grandmother, who would’ve had a very hard time starting a business without knowing how to read or write, because she couldn’t read or write. There are still women all over the world who aren’t able or allowed to get an education; who work for very little pay and have far fewer rights than men.

Bonnie wondered, what if she could help those women start their own businesses? All those women have unique stories to tell about their lives – and a picture… can be worth a thousand words.

That was it! Bonnie would teach women how to use a camera and photograph their lives. Then, she’d also try to help them sell the photos to make money. 

Bonnie carefully put her thoughts together and submitted her business idea to the contest. She didn’t win, and the judges even told her that the idea was not worth her time. But Bonnie had seen the power of photography first hand. She decided she would start the company anyway, even without their support. She called it “Lensational”. 

Get it? “Lens”… like a camera lens, and “sational” like all the sensational women around the world who would now be empowered to share their stories through pictures.

Now picture this: on the rooftop of a clothing factory in Bangladesh, a girl named Yasmin focusses her lens on a patch of pink and red roses. The petals are spread wide, their leafy green stems like necks stretching up towards the sun. In the distance, also bathed in sunlight, are looming gray buildings, all alike. Some of them are falling apart, with walls and roof tiles missing. But Yasmin focuses on the roses, presses her finger down and snap! the moment is captured forever.

This is one of Bonnie’s favorite photos from her team of Lensational photographers. The clothing factory where Yasmin works is in an industrial part of the city, but she’s found beauty pushing through the concrete. A spark of hope and color.

Next, picture this: There’s an open door. It’s built out of wood, there are scratches and dirt – but the wood has been painted bright green and blue. In the doorway stands a fourteen year old girl, with dark skin and curious eyes, wearing a bright yellow duku, or headscarf, over her hair. Her beautiful blue and purple dress has a pattern that looks a little bit like hot air balloons floating through the sky.

The girl, Hawa, was photographed by her “shutter sister,” another Lensational photographer named Fibi Afloe. Hawa stands in the doorway of her home in Ghana, during Covid lockdowns. Many kids during Covid lockdowns were able to keep learning, studying on computers and zoom. But Hawa’s family didn’t have a phone or computer. Taking photos gave Hawa and Fibi an escape, as they waited to get back to school and life out in the world.

With support from Bonnie’s company, both Yasmin and Fibi have sold their photos to provide income for themselves and their families. Their photos challenge stereotypes of what people think they know about places like Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Ghana, Indonesia, and the Philippines. So far, Lensational has helped over a thousand women, in more than twenty different countries, to share their voices and their vision one picture at a time.

And many of those women have gone on to start other businesses – because learning a new skill also builds confidence. And confidence can inspire you to explore new horizons

So…back to that picture of where you are right now, Rebels. If you could take just one photograph to show people something about your life… something important to you… what would you try to capture and share? The view from your favorite window? The light shimmering on a nearby creek? What would you photograph to invite people into your world and how can pictures connect you to others?

Thanks to rebels like Bonnie Chiu, we can find new ways to share our stories and the stories of others. To focus on the brightest colors, the greatest possibilities and where they lead us when we press…snap