PROFILE

Elisa Iannacone

A woman wearing a beige leotard and ballet shoes with pink ribbons tied around her legs, hands and upper body stands next to a small plane also draped in bright pink.

"This is called Flight and Fight and not Fight or Flight, because the first thing this woman did after being abused was to fly home," says cinematographer and Canon Ambassador Elisa Iannacone of this image from her powerful series, The Spiral of Containment: Rape's Aftermath. "She later decided to go back to Uganda where she'd been assaulted and start an organisation for survivors. We used hot pink because ballet had been one of her grounding mechanisms through the healing process. She's tied to a plane because it was the vehicle she used to get in and out." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/64 sec, f/3.4 and ISO160. © Elisa Iannacone

Where can the human condition be examined more closely than on the front line of conflict or in the aftermath of a traumatic experience? Covering the Rabaa massacre in Cairo, Egypt, and domestic violence in refugee camps in Iraq, cinematographer and Canon Ambassador Elisa Iannacone developed a deeper understanding of trauma; not only what it means for the victims, but also how to present it to the world.

Elisa has now moved away from conflict reporting, but continues to use her skills as a visual artist to explore trauma and social consciousness. As a cinematographer and photographer, she has produced work for National Geographic, Newsweek, Vice and the BBC, and her films have been shown at film festivals across the world. Through her media agency Reframe House, she delivers multimedia projects for companies and individuals that want to make a genuine difference. Elisa is also now a published author, TEDx speaker and guest lecturer, and her approach for connecting with victims of trauma is being developed by two major universities.

Elisa was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother who spoke little English, and a Canadian father who spoke almost no Spanish. "I think having taken that role of interpreter at an early age has informed a lot of my later career, which has a lot to do with interpreting how people feel through visuals," she says.

After pleading for a camera as a child, Elisa became dedicated to capturing the world around her. "My parents bought me a bunch of rolls of film with the camera, expecting them to last me throughout the year. I ended up shooting them all in a few days," she remembers. "It was like opening a window. A window that nobody else could see, and that I could share with people if I only snapped that shot."

By the age of 12, Elisa had decided that she wanted to be a film director. Recurring illnesses in her teens meant she spent a lot of time at home watching movies. "Films were the world where I could be someone who wasn't ill. That magical space meant that films were always a kind of hope for my own life."

At 18, she enrolled on the film production course at York University in Toronto, Canada, and specialised in cinematography. A master's degree in international journalism from City, University of London, UK, a few years later gave her the skills she needed to tell stories from the frontline.

Cinematographer and Canon Video Ambassador Elisa Iannacone holding a Canon Cinema EOS camera.
Location: London, UK
Specialist areas: Documentary filmmaking, social change
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS C300 Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III)
Canon CN-E24mm T1.5 FP X
A young girl holding a candle looks defiantly at an oversized jack-in-the-box children's toy.

One of Elisa's latest projects, A Place to Hide From Monsters, addresses childhood trauma. "The jack-in-the-box represents society, school classmates and others who look at this young girl differently, dismissively and with judgement," explains Elisa. "She is scared but equally defiant – and able to face her monsters." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 42mm, 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO400. © Elisa Iannacone

Elisa gained invaluable experience as a conflict reporter covering the Rabaa massacre in Egypt in 2013, shooting video content and stills for global news outlets. Though she continued to fulfil this role in Jordan and Iraq after returning from Egypt, it was in Cairo that her understanding of frontline journalism was altered for good. "I got shot at. Some of my friends were shot. I thought to myself, 'Whose war am I fighting and why?' News outlets wouldn't even publish all of my material because of the scale of destruction it showed."

Elisa eventually came to decide that people only have a limited capacity for witnessing devastation and knew she needed to find another way to tell important stories. She shifted her focus to working with survivors of abuse and finding new ways to express trauma through art. Rather than simply pointing her camera at her subjects, she now chooses to get to know the people she works with, and empowers them by involving them in the creative process.

"If someone says to me, 'I felt like I was drowning, or that I was trapped', I ask: 'What does that look like if you could externalise it?' And then begin to sketch what comes to mind."

A woman wearing a long dress covered in flowers and with several trains holds up a lit candelabra. She is looking away from the camera and several white hands can be seen grabbing her body.

"We shot this at an old post office in Johannesburg, South Africa," says Elisa, of this image entitled Strength and Beauty. "It represents her trying to connect to strength, beauty and positive energy but being held back, which is why we included all the hands and set it in a dilapidated environment." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/128 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Elisa Iannacone

A young woman sits in a boat covered in flowers, drums and animal skins. She is holding a lantern and in the water and on the bank around her are hundreds of lit candles.

Staying Afloat. "This woman had been abused in a graveyard near water, but felt like she had managed to stay afloat," says Elisa. "The drums and skins connect her to her ancestors, who she was upset with for not protecting her. It's about resilience and survival." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 55mm, 1/100 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Elisa Iannacone

Elisa's work is deeply intimate. Some of her projects take months to plan and execute, but even in the midst of chaos in conflict zones, she manages to form a deep connection with her subjects. Intimacy and connection define her style whether she's shooting stills or film, but cinematography – be it a documentary, a piece of drama or a commercial – is still where her true passion lies. "Trying to tell a story in a single frame is a fun challenge," she says, "but it's through film that someone truly comes to life."

In order to connect on an intimate level, Elisa relies on wide lenses such as the
Canon CN-E24mm T1.5 FP X that enable her to get closer to her subjects. "'I love the idea of being physically close to someone. It takes time but breaks the intimacy line. When you're close, you're right in there with them and with their world, because you can get a sense of their perspective."

Elisa's methods are now being developed into a therapeutic methodology for expressing trauma through art by The Open University in the UK and a university in Ireland. She continues to work with victims of abuse, while supporting herself by leveraging her skills to work with major brands who want to inspire change.

What inspired you to start a career covering war, natural disasters and human rights issues?

"I specialised in international journalism and TV production at university, and then specialised even further into conflict reporting. I believed at that stage of my life that my future was entirely in conflict reporting. And as soon as I graduated, I went to Egypt when the Rabaa massacre happened and then covered Syrian refugee camps in Jordan before going to Iraq."


What keeps you going when tackling these difficult subjects?

"Covering the conflict in Egypt was the most challenging time of my career. My life was at stake, I was working while wearing a gas mask, getting shot at, witnessing human pain every second of the day and operating on adrenaline without any sleep. I was driven by the experience of witnessing so much rawness. I felt like it went much beyond just witnessing. It was learning about the human condition – about what we're like in moments of extreme pressure and how we deal with the stress of extreme loss."


How do you find and tell stories that dig below the surface of a news story or issue?

"A lot of Egyptians don't even know what happened in that conflict – news outlets wouldn't publish a lot of my material because it contained dead people. It made me very angry, then I realised that this wasn't the way I was going to make a change in the world. Compassion fatigue is real and people can't handle so much horror all the time. So I took a u-turn and decided to work with challenging topics, but tried to present them in ways that were different and accessible. That was what led me into working with rape survivors around the world, and the decision to not present it in a photojournalistic black and white way, but to put the power back with the victim and allow them to frame themselves in an empowering way. This enabled people to watch their stories and see what was happening without feeling the same pain we always feel about the horrors of the world."


What drove you to set up Reframe House and what are your ambitions for it?

"Reframing goes beyond taking your camera and pointing it at a subject. It's like reframing life, using a camera. It's a symbiotic relationship, using stills, video or even holographic projections to create a shift in narrative. Reframe House is a business, and we want to use this methodology to present topics that matter, whether that's conflict or green energy, in ways that haven't been done before. We work with businesses and impact investors to make a tangible change in the world, rather than ticking corporate social responsibility boxes. Our method is more empathetic so it can be more easily received by people, making audiences active rather than passive."


What advice would you give to aspiring cinematographers?

"Don't believe in the box that you get put into. If somebody tells you that you can't do drama because you're a journalistic cinematographer, contest it. By putting ourselves into boxes we're losing our opportunity not just to grow technically, but to grow as people. The world is in need of deeper meaning, so for me it's about following your passion and your soul. There is a career path that's never been taken, and you can spearhead it."

One thing I know

Elisa Iannacone

"Sometimes capturing subjects in a black and white way re-victimises them and captures a moment of trauma that prevents people from moving forward. Knocking people in the head with images of destruction can actually make them more passive and tends to lead to compassion fatigue. Presenting subjects with a more empathetic approach empowers them to share their stories and makes them easier to be understood by others."

Instagram:@elisaiannacone / @reframehouse

Website:www.elisaiannacone.com / www.reframehouse.com

Elisa Iannacone's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Elisa Iannacone's kitbag containing Canon cameras and lenses.

Cameras

Canon EOS C300 Mark III

The successor to the camera Elisa favours incorporates Canon's innovative 4K Super 35mm DGO sensor, with 4K 120p slow motion, high dynamic range and Dual Pixel CMOS AF. Elisa says: "My go-to choice for getting closer when shooting documentaries and journalistic films."

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. "My first Canon was a 40D and I fell in love with it. I'm considering making the switch to mirrorless but the 5D Mark IV gives me everything I need for now," says Elisa.

Lenses

Canon CN-E24mm T1.5 FP X

Designed to offer delicate and subtle rendering of a subject, this Sumire Prime lens offers a fast aperture and precise manual control with a crafted focus bokeh aimed at careful creative expression.

Canon CN-E50mm T1.3 FP X

Personalise your craft with this superb Sumire Prime lens, which boasts a specially designed 'cinematic look' and interchangeable PL mount. "Working with 50mm lenses is great because of the shallow depth of field they provide when I want to keep the focus solely on my subject," says Elisa.

Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 STM

With the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens, you can easily produce more artistic and impactful photography thanks to a wide f/1.8 aperture that produces sharp focus on your subject and a beautiful blurred background.

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