We’re defined by our stories — who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. But sometimes, that narrative gets rewritten. Refugees fleeing from conflict, war, and mistreatment are often dehumanized and stripped of their stories.
In support of World Refugee Day, we’re honoring those who have the courage to share their narrative and those who are enabling them to do so. We caught up with documentary photographer Alice Aedy to talk about the importance of photographing refugees and giving voice to their experiences.
Can you tell us a bit about where you’re from and what you do?
My name is Alice Aedy and I’m a 24-year-old documentary photographer and film-maker who’s been published in the London Times, Vice, the Guardian, Huck Magazine, Al Jazeera, Monocle, Smith Journal, BBC, and more. I produced a documentary on migrants in Serbia for the Guardian in 2017, and recently began an MA in documentary film-making at UCL. My work is focused on migration, women’s rights, and environmental issues, with recent assignments to Iran and Somaliland to cover the drought.
How did you first get involved with photography?
I fell into photojournalism by accident, actually.
In January of 2016, I headed to a refugee camp known as “the Jungle” in Calais, in Northern France, where as many as 10,000 refugees were living in squalid conditions, hoping to get to the U.K. I intended to volunteer there for just a weekend but didn’t know that it would become the start of more than two years involved with the refugee crisis. After Calais, I went to a camp called Idomeni in Greece, which is the largest informal refugee camp since WWII. I worked with 15 volunteers and, together, we cooked 7,000 meals a day.
At first, I was terrified to take photos. I didn’t identify as a photographer or journalist yet, so I kept asking myself: Who am I to take photos of these people, in desperate situations and living in terrible conditions? My priority was to volunteer, but I always had a camera around my neck, so after a while, I began to document what I saw and the people I met.
Ultimately, I spent much of 2016 and 2017 on the front lines of the European refugee crisis, reporting from inside refugee camps in Greece, Serbia, and France. Since then, I have continued to use documentary photography and film-making to tell important stories about the world in which we live.
Why is photography your chosen medium?
I believe strongly in the power of images as a vehicle for empathy, and in photography’s power to communicate the human stories behind news headlines and overwhelming statistics.
How did you break into documentary photography and get your first assignment? Was it intimidating at all?
I began to self-publish the images I took as a volunteer in the refugee camps across Europe on Instagram, and to my surprise, some people started to resonate with the images that had previously just existed on my hard drive. Luckily, those images began getting picked up by publications with a wider reach than my own, including a portrait on the front page of the Guardian. When they wrote a feature about my work with child refugees and recognized me as young photojournalist, it gave me the confidence to continue my work.
In your opinion, what power does documentary photography hold, both for you personally and for others?
Photography is a tool to tell the human stories of individuals. Photography, in the context of the refugee crisis, gave me the chance to tell intimate and personal stories that were missing in the media’s narrative of refugees at the time, namely the distinctive experiences of the mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons at the center of the crisis. In the discourse of the U.K., the refugee crisis had been reduced to crude language like “swarms of migrants,” and refugees were dismissed with loaded political rhetoric like “economic migrants.” Not only was this language misleading, but the narrative desperately needed a human face to elevate the voices of the people behind the statistics.
Why did you start photographing refugee populations?
After a few months volunteering, I quickly realized that, as a long-term volunteer in the refugee camps, I could tell different stories from the journalists who would parachute in and out. I was able to build intimate relationships. The camera enhanced my chance to have conversations and build relationships that I have maintained two-and-half years later. I began to document the suffering, boredom, and desperation I saw, alongside the moments of joy and dignity. I became close with many and followed some families during their journey across Europe, but I became extremely close with three girls in particular — Zayneb, Milaf, and Yamamah.
Soon, I began to get involved with an amazing group of women who had set up Help Refugees in response to the crisis in Calais. They quickly became the biggest grassroots organization in Europe, funding up to 80 projects and riding an incredible momentum of grassroots volunteer action. Help Refugees began to use my images for fundraising purposes, which made me believe in the tangible impact of these photographs.
What did you want to evoke with your photos of the refugee crisis?
Over my time photographing, I became aware of the level of desensitisation toward the refugee crisis. I was worried about the extent to which people were disengaging with the familiar images of boats arriving on Greek shores and detaching themselves from any responsibility to help. Even an image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old refugee who drowned and washed up on European shores, only captured the world’s attention for a moment, and had no long-lasting or tangible impact. I tried to use portraiture as an antidote to that, to get people to engage with the individuals in the images and think about shared values and characteristics rather than categorizing them as “other.”
How do you balance interacting with people and being a documentarian?
I have never really found that balance, actually. In fact, I think that the actual moment of documentation or taking the photo is only a small fraction of my work, while the interaction is absolutely key. A lot of my work consists of portraiture, in which establishing a relationship with my subject is extremely important. That’s the best part about photography — it becomes a vehicle to meet and talk to people you might never have otherwise.
What about your experience do you wish others knew?
I truly believe that the European refugee crisis is as much a political crisis as a humanitarian one. I wish governments would shift their perception of refugees as migration is an issue that will continue to affect us, particularly as our climate continues to change and we begin to have climate refugees. The stream of migrants traveling across Africa, through Libya, and over the Mediterranean continues. Just the other day, Italy refused one of these NGO ships in what I considered yet another denial of our moral and legal responsibility to welcome those in need. Those I have met along my journey didn’t choose to be refugees. No one wants to be a refugee.
Have you changed at all since becoming a documentary photographer?
To me, it seems hard to believe that the refugee crisis, although no longer making headlines, continues to affect hundreds of thousands and that the Syrian war is in its eighth year. Meeting the innocent victims of this crisis has reminded me of our extraordinary capacity to turn a blind eye, to ignore our responsibility to help those caught up in a war fought at their expense. My experiences over the last two years drive me to continue using documentary photography and film to tell important stories.
For more information about the refugee crisis and to learn how you can lend a hand, visit helprefugees.org