Posted on: 06 April 2018
Alice Aedy is a documentary photographer and filmmaker, whose work is based around the topics of migration, women’s rights and environmental issues. She has produced work for many outlets, including the Guardian, Vice and Al-Jazeera. Her work brings humanity and nuance to issues that are too often portrayed as one-dimensional in the press. Her portraits of refugees show the beauty and defiance of those who are caught up in one of the worst human crises of our time. Freda met Alice at the Pink Protest ‘Vagina Monologues’, and it was great to be able to chat to her about her experiences volunteering in refugee camps, building relationships with refugee families, and using social media as a force for good.
Hey Alice, thank you so much for talking to Freda! You’ve worked in refugee camps in Serbia, Greece and France, which is really interesting because Affi, Freda’s founder, was inspired to start Freda when she learned about the period poverty that exists in refugee camps. Affi herself is from a refugee background, so this is a personal cause. What first drove you to decide to tell the stories of refugees through film and photography?
Well I would say it was a mixture of accident and shock, really. At first, I was planning on going to Calais for just two days, and I ended up staying months, and now it has sort of dominated the past two years. At the time, people were arriving on beaches and heading up to Germany. The photos I saw drove me to go and volunteer there, yet saying that is almost ironic because only seeing a photo doesn’t give you a sense of the reality; the cold, the smell of a place, the atmosphere and the tension.
So I was really, really shocked, especially because the first camp that I volunteered in was in France, and I couldn’t believe how bad it was- at the time I went, it was minus five degrees, really cold, and just shockingly bad living conditions. I couldn’t believe that this existed only a step away from getting off the Eurostar. So it all kind of happened by accident- after Calais, I went to work in a camp in Greece, I had heard about lots of people on the island of Lesvos, which is where a lot of volunteers went, and so I thought that I should go somewhere where there were fewer volunteers. I heard about this camp called Idomeni refugee camp, which is on the Macedonian border, by which point the Balkan route had closed its doors, so all the people who wanted to travel up to Germany were no longer able to do that. This camp was made up of 15,000 people blocked on this border, all of whom essentially wanted to go north, but not being able to. It was total chaos- the biggest informal settlement since the Second World War.
I joined a group of volunteers, and we were cooking 7,000 meals a day in these giant pots- dhals and hot food, because no one was getting hot meals. It was intense. I was very lucky in a sense, because although I carried my camera around my neck, taking photos was not my priority. I was there as a volunteer, but I met lots of families, who I then stayed in touch with for two years, and followed their journeys. So in a way, being a volunteer gave me the long-term access to really building quite intimate relationships with quite a few people, which I hope really translates in my photos.
But it wasn’t until months later that I set up an Instagram account and started to self-publish, and everything grew from there.
That’s amazing. I was wondering whether you think being a woman behind the lens changes the experience for the viewer of a photograph- either in terms of the ability to build up intimate relationships with families, or in terms of perspective?
Well I think being a woman definitely gave me an advantage in terms of access- it was much easier for me to go into tents and really communicate with people.
I think about this a lot, and I am quite reluctant to say that there is any such thing as a female gaze, because then I think that you can then fall into these horrible clichés about women. So I try to reject that. But I certainly think it’s an advantage in terms of access- there are pros and cons of course; I definitely have to be really aware of my safety in these situations.
Often I stayed with families and stuff, and I think men can do that too, but it definitely felt easier to establish a relationship with women.
That’s really interesting because I think there is a stereotype about the vulnerability of young women travelling alone, so to hear that this can also bring positives is great.
Yes, women have become a big focus in my photos, so it’s definitely been helpful to have that access.
One of my favourite projects of yours is ‘The Many Faces of Iran’, because the humanity and joy of each woman is striking; they are almost daring you to defy the stereotypes that may exist about women in Iran.
That is really nice to hear. I went to Iran after a full year of volunteering and I was really keen to just take those images, because they are different to what I did before. These women are really happy, they are of women I met along the way, they weren’t necessarily in bad situations at all. I was travelling, I met them and they were really happy, so I ended up just really falling in love.
Yeah, they do feel so joyful, just a real celebration of being a woman.
Yeah, and certainly in Iran, there is such a different experience of being a woman. Really, I had no idea what the reaction to my photography would be; everyone said before I went, ‘you won’t be able to get your camera out, you certainly won’t be able to photograph women’, and it was the complete opposite.
So really your photographs are going a long way to break down this stigmatisation
Yeah, it was really not at all what I expected it would be, and very quickly all those stereotypes just fell away.
Talking to the women in the refugee camps that you volunteered in, what came across as the biggest challenge that they were facing? Was there a common theme in their stories?
That’s a good question. I remember so vividly, it’s slightly different, but there was such a lack of information about what was going on. At the time, the borders had just closed and everyone thought that they would open again, and of course we knew that this wasn’t going to happen. They would look to the volunteers about what was going on, and rumours would really spread. I remember really clearly that there were days when rumours would really spread around the camp that at 4pm the borders were going to open, so people would be packing their bags. The desperation to know what the hell was going on- that was really crazy.
In terms of the stigma- it was the general total confusion as to why Europe wasn’t welcoming them, wasn’t opening up the borders, which was really sad. That was it- it wasn’t so much stereotypes about them, but more their vision of Europe as a paradise, where they fled to seek asylum from conflict, but where they ended up being treated as animals.
On a slightly different topic- Freda’s ethos is based around sustainability, and with climate- induced migration increasing, how do you think we can adapt to this increase in human migration- how do attitudes need to change, and have you experienced them already changing?
This is a political crisis as much as a humanitarian crisis- it is all about political will. If there was political will to deal with the refugees then there wouldn’t be this crisis. Political will is the answer, and unfortunately I’m not sure this is changing to be any more on our side.
The work that you do is very grassroots, and there really seems to be a movement of people who are opening up the narrative.
Yes definitely- Help Refugees is an amazing example of where young women started a hashtag, which gained incredible momentum, and now it’s a big grassroots organisation all across Europe that has single-handedly in a few years raised millions, which is more than most charities.
They’ve created an incredible social movement, young people, and influential older people- they have definitely played a big role in swaying attitudes.
So you can look at it in a negative or a positive way- you can look to the politicians who don’t seem to care that much, or look to the incredible grassroots movement, which I think anyone at Help Refugees would say they have been overwhelmed by.
I think its also important to change the mind set in society from what can be quite a negative view of social media to one that views it as empowering- particularly as many of the refugees themselves have access to this, and participate in this forum.
I agree- I think anyone who denies the power of social media as a tool for good is just a bit naive. I’ll be the first to say that I do think that it can be incredible damaging in so many ways, not least because we all present such a perfected image of our own lives. If anyone working for Help Refugees or in journalism can burst that bubble in any way and remind us of reality, I think that would be a good thing.
But I think that social media used as a tool for good is incredibly powerful.
Having worked with women in refugee camps and in Somaliland and Iran, what gives you the most hope for the future in terms of achieving gender equality?
I think the last year has just been astonishing. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had about consent recently- with men, women, mothers and fathers, adults, different generations all at one table- and this wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. We didn’t have the language to talk about these things, so I think it is unbelievable. So I guess I feel hopeful that we are all learning the language to be able to assess ourselves and articulate ourselves properly.
Personally, I have gained the confidence to articulate myself properly on these subjects, to defend my arguments and defend my beliefs, and I think that we are all being given the tools to do that.
Again, I think social media has been an incredible tool for that- but it’s funny, because on the one hand, in theory, it’s meant to encourage diversity and shared values, but actually, things like Brexit and Trump just prove it’s can be an echo chamber, and maybe we are not learning to love each other at all. So I really am in two minds about it.
How many people are actually seeing my work? I don’t know, maybe you’re just preaching to the choir with your work.
Thank you so much for talking to Freda, Alice, and we look forward to seeing your future projects! Check out more of Alice’s work here.