by Emily Cai
The mission of femLENS is rooted in female empowerment and gender equality. Over the past years, femLENS has had the opportunity to work with women in countries such as Poland, Ireland, Ukraine, Lebanon, Germany, Spain, setting up photography workshops in order to help women tell their stories. As an organisation whose values stem from human rights, femLENS not only uses its platform to shine a light on issues that disproportionately affect women, such as human trafficking and migration, it also aims to raise awareness of the importance of women’s perspectives and experiences. Through documentary photography and storytelling, femLENS fights for gender equality by empowering women – but what exactly about this approach is effective in dismantling inequality? Why does femLENS focus on women, and why, in particular, on photography and storytelling?
Empowering women has long-reaching benefits not just in terms of equality, but in terms of promoting peace and stability in society, as well as driving change in communities. From UN Women to the Council on Foreign Relations, research demonstrates the benefits of women representation and leadership: from advocating fairer policies, to promoting bipartisanship, to a more stable society and a better economy. In spite of this, women still remain underrepresented, not only in positions of leadership, but also in a significant number of fields ranging from science, to business, to art.
The field of photography is no exception. Photography largely remains a male-dominated field, where women face compounded barriers from sexism to industry stereotypes, from lack of opportunity to workplace discrimination. Additionally, in countries like the UK, arts in general have morphed into a bastion of the middle-class, increasingly accessible only to the privileged, where systemic inequality affects women more than it does men. Women typically struggle to gain a foothold due to economic and societal barriers, and all the while male-generated perspectives and images dominate the output of artistic mediums.
This imbalance in gender dynamics is perpetuated through what Audre Lorde describes as the “mythical norm” — that is, the dominant and powerful group in society (by US standards, for example, this would be the white, non-disabled, heterosexual male). This dominant group, according to Beverly Daniel Tatum, holds power and authority, in addition to determining everything from job distribution, societal structure, and historical narrative. Society itself is constructed based on the perspectives and stories of the mythical norm.
The general exclusion of women’s stories from the dominant narrative is explained in Tatum’s observations: “Dominant groups generally don’t like to be reminded of the existence of inequality… The truth is that the dominants do not really know what the experiences of the subordinate is.” The mainstream narrative is neither constructed by or with women, nor is it receptive to identifying or hearing the experiences of women. The reality is that not only are women in most societies often relegated to secondary status, but the majority of the voices and narratives which could serve to identify, explain, or even fight against this condition are drowned out by the clamour of the mythical norm.
The guiding mission of femLENS comes as a way of changing this reality. In order to combat the status quo, femLENS seeks to create a channel where the stories of women can be told and heard: to facilitate and produce a counter-narrative to the dominant narrative. By providing an accessible means of storytelling and empowering women to share their stories, femLENS ultimately hopes to plant the seeds of a more gender-equal society by promoting women’s voices and subverting the mythical norm.
Through focus on accessibility, femLENS’ approach to documentary photography breaks down several traditional barriers faced by women. Firstly, femLENS’ methods strive to overcome the economic and class barriers that come hand-in-hand with art, and that are compounded by gender inequality. Free courses and workshops are offered in different countries to educate women in documentary photography techniques. Photos are taken using basic, everyday equipment: mobile phones. The images – taken by women and offering insight into their lives – are collected and published via femLENS’ free online magazine, to be accessed and viewed by anyone with an internet connection.
Additionally, through the visual medium of documentary photography, barriers that are traditionally posed by linguistic differences are transcended. Using documentary photography for storytelling ensures “intellectual accessibility” on both the part of the artist and the audience, as, according to Jessica Senehi, “no special training or literacy is required for its communication.” This important and prevalent element of accessibility in femLENS’ work guarantees not only that women have the means with which to tell their story, but that the public has the means with which to view these stories. Ultimately, the more women’s stories are told and shared, the more women are empowered to build and take control of their own narrative.
While accessibility is an important part of femLENS’ process of female empowerment, just as important and valuable is teaching and encouraging the artistic form of storytelling through photography. Anyone can tell a story and everyone has a story to tell – this is what makes storytelling not only an accessible medium, but also an empowering means of narrative. According to Senehi, storytelling is described as a “readily attainable means whereby persons can access at least some narrator potency”.
Given that empowerment is literally defined as “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights,” storytelling, which is the ability to construct and control one’s own narrative, is therefore literally the definition of empowerment. Storytelling is the means of giving form to one’s own identity – what could be more empowering? Through photography, femLENS empowers women to give voice to their stories by sharing their perspectives and presenting their experiences.
In order to foster this spirit of empowerment, femLENS seeks to provide a community whereby women feel supported to come together and tell their stories. As long as the narrative of the mythical norm dominates society unchallenged, the perception will be that there is little acceptance or room for stories told by others. However, as Olafur Eliasson explains, “The important thing is not that we agree about the experience that we share, but that we consider it worthwhile sharing an experience at all”.
In the face of an overbearing mythical norm, femLENS provides a place where women whose stories have traditionally gone untold are able to come together, a place where women feel that their voices and their perspectives matters. This safe place is important in terms of nurturing storytelling and empowering women: a key element to effective storytelling is “finding a place; a community which invites you to share difficult narratives.” Ultimately, the community created by femLENS is meant to be conducive to storytelling, where women can express their lived experiences and vision through photography, and where the stories told by women can be openly shared and celebrated.
Ensuring women have both the means and the environment to tell their stories is femLENS’ way of challenging current systems of power. Providing an accessible channel for the voices and perspectives of women is invaluable in deconstructing the mythical norm. Documentary photography allows women to speak truth to power by explicitly communicating in images the personal and lived experiences of the artist. Storytelling in particular is described as “deliciously subversive” — there is an inherent element of activism in the act of women simply telling their stories, as their perspectives directly refute the picture of reality painted by the mythical norm.
There should be nothing radical about a society where everyone has an equal voice. A peaceful community is correlated with the ability of everyone, not just those in power, to contribute to knowledge production and societal discourse. Therefore, by empowering women to tell their stories and providing a community where these stories can be heard and shared, femLENS supports not only women, but a more equal society, as well as the ability for communities to build sustainable peace.
The mission of femLENS is rooted in female empowerment and gender equality: women who feel their stories are worth telling, who, through documentary photography, are able to create and share their own experiences, perspectives, and lives, and who are able to advocate for a fairer society by countering the narrative of the mythical norm. To empower women is to promote equality and peace. To empower women is to empower entire communities. Ultimately, femLENS’ goal is to serve as the origin of a boundless ripple-effect that changes society for the better.