femLENS documentary photography workshops usually take place in small groups and face to face. The participants get any help they need immediately and the facilitator has control over the entire process.

When in early March the Estonian government suspended all public events as protection against the novel Coronavirus, femLENS had just started a new series of workshops with teenage girls in Narva. We didn’t hesitate or miss a beat and moved our workshops online. It went so well that soon after finishing with that group we put together a fresh group. We had four new participants – women living in Mexico, DRC and England. We had a few connection problems here and there, but they were a success too. Even though learning and practicing photography in the physical world is much more rewarding, reaching women from around the world without needing to travel, all in one place has been amazing.

Somewhere during the time of our second online workshop, a woman from Israel following our Instagram account reached out to ask if we could collaborate. She makes documentary films, and we’ve been working for over a year on a project to go to Gaza to do our workshops with women there, so we started talking. Finally, we had an idea to organise our workshops online for Palestinian women living in Israel since no one is going anywhere, anytime soon. We found interested participants and yesterday, the day of our first call – we were full of excitement about meeting the new students. When the time came, only one student was online. The rest were having problems with the connection or the call service. We use Jitsi Meet for our calls because it is a “straight out the box” kind of service – click on the link, no installs or registration, takes you straight to the call. And yet here we were. One hour later, only two others out of eight had managed to join the call, with patchy connection.

Another one of our students from past workshops was contacted by a platform that promotes women in photography. They asked her if she has a website. She has amazing photos on her Instagram, but she doesn’t have a website. We spent over an hour yesterday using Jitsi Meet looking at templates and how to modify them with her own work. We will spend many more uploading photos, writing captions and crafting a bio using Jitsi Meet.

Observing the world these last few months, one may get the impression that everyone is thriving in the new digital environment we find ourselves in. But one of the lesson we can learn here is that large “services” that so many people around the world use are not the Internet. They’re a tiny part of the digital landscape but they dominate and once a person steps outside these familiar walls, many don’t know how to navigate, how to troubleshoot, how to find answers and solutions. But education and the Internet have been so closely intertwined from the beginning.

The Internet and digital tools should not be experienced through a single interface (Facebook, Google/YouTube, WhatsApp, Zoom) because engaging with the variety of authored services and applications promotes lifelong learning, applying old knowledge to new situations, trial, error and learning! If you think you support online learning, collective digital participation and having fun discovering new information, consider how you can introduce a new website into your routine and then help someone who may have trouble with it figure it out. Consider starting an Ether Pad with your favourite online resources and share it with others.

Issues like connectivity and mobile phone ownership are still serious! Last year we shared the “The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019” by GSMA which found that in some regions women are 28 percent less like to own a mobile phone and 58 percent less likely to use mobile Internet. When assessing barriers to ownership the report concludes

“Literacy and digital skills are the second most important barrier to mobile ownership across the countries surveyed. Both factors are important considerations in most markets. The remaining unconnected population is disproportionately illiterate or has low levels of literacy, so ensuring that handsets are usable and accessible for less literate users is important. Previous GSMA research has found that women are often less confident in independently acquiring the digital skills required to use a mobile phone, and are more concerned with the consequences of making mistakes. Literacy and digital skills were the most important barrier across Asia where they affect women in particular.”

The report also indicates that women are less likely to download apps to access a variety of services. So once they come into possession of a handset, does it come with pre-installed “services”? A new Android device may come with Google, WhatsApp, Amazon, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pre-installed – and these, according to GSMA, are what mobile internet is. Do these services help them challenge the social norms that create low self confidence in women and really empower them? An older phone that works just as a phone can offer basic security needs to call for help or send news fast. So if we’re talking smart phones, how do we make those really work for the people? Will the new digital divide and inequality be whether or not people know that there’s a whole world of information and creativity outside the corporate products?

Consider also this, as New York state plays with the idea of an educational reform that will include the input of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, will the old inequalities transfer into a new dimension – an online education guided through platforms designed by consumer behaviour analysts that will train responses and complacency, or individual multi-platform multi-skill get-into-the-guts-of-your-computer kind of education. Are they the same?

As for our workshops, we’re giving it another go today. Hopefully, we can get through the tech jungle to start learning about documentary photography and each other’s stories! The situation with the Coronavirus has given us an opportunity to review what we have and what is of value around us. We shouldn’t miss a chance to reconstruct the present, to make the future more equal and inclusive!

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