Turning the tide with documentary filmmaker Alice Aedy

Filmmaker Alice Aedy on the coast of Kiribati holding a Canon EOS C300 Mark II.
Documentary filmmaker Alice Aedy with her Canon EOS C300 Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III) on the coast of Kiribati, a remote nation in the Pacific Ocean which is under threat from rising sea levels. "When I'm in the field, camera on my shoulder, I feel a sense of purpose, of possibility, and that makes me really happy," she says. © Alice Aedy

In September 2015, British documentarian Alice Aedy saw an image that changed her life. Published across the globe, the photograph showed the body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee, washed up on a Turkish beach. "It's rare that an image captures the world's attention. Along with so many others, I was completely shocked," says the 26-year-old documentary filmmaker. "In a split-second I decided I had to go and help somehow."

What began as a brief volunteering stint took Alice from Calais to Greece, and then to Serbia and Iraq, where she spent several years documenting the refugee crisis. Migration, alongside women's rights and climate change have become the core focus of her work, which has now shifted from stills to filmmaking. Disconnected (2018), her directorial debut about loneliness experienced by young people growing up in the digital age, premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019 and San Francisco Documentary Festival, where it was nominated for a Jury Prize and an Audience Award.

The power of images

"My work is driven by the idea that visual storytelling and images have the power to change the world," Alice explains. Growing up, her heroes were war photographers Sir Don McCullin and Lynsey Addario, but she always wanted to explore documentary filmmaking.

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Although she has since completed an MA in documentary filmmaking at UCL in London, when she started Alice was self-taught, fresh from an undergraduate degree in history and politics at the London school of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Before leaving for Greece, she invested in her first camera, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV), along with a single prime, a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. While volunteering at Idomeni, a refugee camp at the border with North Macedonia with a population of more than 15,000 people, the majority children, she began making portraits of people she met. People such as the Omar family, who were living with four children in a rain-drenched two-person tent.

"Learning with a 50mm lens shaped the way that I photographed and built relationships," Alice recalls. "That was such a formative period. There was ongoing consent because I would be photographing so close to their faces – I would physically move. I never used a zoom and I haven't really since."

A portrait of Zayneb Omar, a seven-year-old Kurdish refugee from Qamishli in Syria.
Zayneb Omar, a Kurdish refugee from Qamishli in Syria. Her family spent six months in military-run refugee camps in Northern Greece before being housed in a single room by the UN. Alice followed the family from one camp to another until they were granted asylum in France. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Alice Aedy
A Syrian woman in a blue headscarf cradles a child at the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece.
A Syrian mother and son rest on train tracks at Idomeni on the border of Greece and North Macedonia. The village became the site of the largest informal refugee camp since the World War II at the height of the 2015/16 refugee crisis. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Alice Aedy

The images sat on Alice's hard drive for a year because she lacked the confidence to share them. But in 2016, The Guardian newspaper in the UK used one of her Idomeni portraits on its front page to promote a fundraiser for child refugees. "It gave me the confidence to call myself a photographer," Alice explains. "That was really the start of my journey as a professional photojournalist and documentary filmmaker." She's since been published by The Times, the BBC and VICE, among others, covering stories about migration and, increasingly, the environment.

"Climate change was never an issue I'd been passionate about – I thought the environment was somehow separate from human experience," she says. But through her work with refugees, she learned that scientists are predicting the biggest mass migration in history due to climate change. "If I cared about social justice, I would have to care about climate change, so I went on a huge journey to inform myself."

That journey took her to "climate change frontlines" ­– places such as Kiribati, a remote nation in the Pacific Ocean at risk from rising sea levels, and rural villages near the city of Burao in Somaliland, which have suffered droughts and famine. "I realised climate change is not a problem relegated to wildlife or melting glaciers, which somehow feels very abstract," she says. "This is about humans. This is about life or death."

A portrait taken in rural Somaliland of a village elder in an orange patterned headscarf.
In 2017, Alice shot portraits of nomadic villagers in rural Somaliland who had survived drought and famine. "My trips to Somaliland showed me that those who have done the least to cause climate change are impacted the most," she explains. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/100secs, f/3.5 and ISO100. © Alice Aedy
A portrait taken in rural Somaliland of an elderly woman in a yellow patterned dress.
Alice built a portable studio and shot the portraits in the style of a fashion editorial. "With the black backdrop, we removed the context of the desert in which they were living, to bring the focus onto the subject and to build empathy," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/200secs, f/2.2 and ISO100. © Alice Aedy

Move to motion on the Canon EOS C300 Mark II

During this time, Alice shifted from shooting stills and video on her Canon EOS 5D Mark III to filming on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III). "That was an incredibly smooth and easy transition because I had learned so much on the DSLR," she says. "Having a camera that specifically catered just to video gave me an incredible focus. Film has allowed me to go deeper into stories and characters. Life is messy and chaotic and film allows us to capture that in all its rawness and chaos in a way that stills sometimes can't."

Thanks to its hardy build quality and weather sealing, her trusty Canon EOS C300 Mark II – affectionately nicknamed Cecil – has been unfailingly fast, responsive and reliable, even when subjected to the most extreme conditions. "I have trekked through the jungle of Borneo in pouring rain," says Alice. "I have gone into deserts in Somaliland and Iraq, where sand can be a huge problem. There's nothing Cecil can't handle."

A young Afghan boy washes himself in the only running water available outside an illegal squat in Serbia.
A young Afghan boy washes himself in the only running water available outside Europe's largest illegal squat. At one point 2,000 Afghan refugees were living in an abandoned warehouse in Belgrade, Serbia, in temperatures that fell to -17°C. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Alice Aedy
Documentary filmmaker Alice Aedy filming with a Canon EOS C300 Mark II in Sri Lanka.
Alice has travelled with her camera from deserts to this Sri Lankan jungle, and she needs to feel comfortable with her kit. "Your camera is a deeply personal thing," she says. "For me, the Canon EOS C300 Mark II and the Canon 5D series have always just felt right." © Alice Aedy

"The ND filters and the inbuilt sound capabilities on the Canon EOS C300 Mark II changed my life. Shooting 4K allows you to create an image which is incredibly detailed, extremely sharp, and that gives you a level of flexibility in post if you want to crop in or reframe your image. The autofocus is crucial, particularly when I'm working on my own."

Alice, who shoots in Canon Log for its expansive dynamic range, also finds the camera's low-light capabilities to be a distinct advantage, as she often shoots at sunrise and dusk. "That's an aesthetic choice, but it's also a practical one," she explains. "I have to be ready for every eventuality in documentary. You never know how the story is going to unfold. I love how Canon cameras capture the beautiful light at blue hour, before the sun rises or just after the sun sets."

The Canon EOS C300 Mark III on a drone filming a ballerina on the wing of a 747.

Canon EOS C300 Mark III first shoot

Cinematographer Steve Holleran put the camera's new DGO sensor and 16+ stops of dynamic range to the test filming a ballerina in an abandoned 747.

An industry in flux

Alice is all too conscious of the ethics and sustainability issues in travelling across the world to tell stories. "I think much more seriously now about every flight that I'm taking," she says. "Is this story worth the carbon footprint? Across the industry we need to be taking that much more seriously.

"I'm also often documenting communities that are not my own, and that comes with a huge responsibility to do those stories justice – to do it with sensitivity, with cultural respect." That means continually questioning her approach, and, in more practical terms, collaborating with local fixers and producers.

While unable to travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, Alice set up Frame of Mind, an online platform to shine a light on documentary filmmakers and photographers, particularly from underrepresented groups, who have used their craft to encourage social change. "This pandemic is challenging filmmakers, photographers and creatives to find new ways of working," she says. "I think there may be real beauty in that. I'm really interested to see if it will have a long-lasting impact on the industry."

A Syrian woman in a turquoise headscarf holding a young child at the 'Softex' refugee camp in Greece.
A Syrian mother and child at the military-run 'Softex' refugee camp, a former toilet paper factory on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, Greece. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Alice Aedy

Alice hopes that the storytelling industry will diversify. "If you're a young woman, and an aspiring photographer or filmmaker, the industry needs you," she urges. "This industry grossly under-represents women, particularly cinematographers."

She remains driven by the belief that her stories can make a difference. "One of my favourite environmentalists, Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, talks about the need for both outrage and optimism," says Alice. "I think that encapsulates what drives my work. It really often is a mixture of outrage, frustration, and a desire to change and have an impact on the world, which has so many problems – but also an optimism that a new world is possible.

"There is power in storytelling. We only need to look back through history to see the impact that stories have had on shaping our lives – how we live them, why we live them and what it means to be human. Stories give shape to experience and existence, they are how we remember people. It is through stories that we dare to imagine a better world."

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

Alice Aedy's kitbag

The key kit pros use to shoot documentaries

Filmmaker Alice Aedy standing in the sea holding a Canon EOS C300 Mark II.


Canon EOS C300 Mark III

The successor to the Mark II that Alice uses. A versatile Super 35mm Cinema EOS System camera supporting internal 4K/120p RAW and featuring Canon's newly developed DGO sensor which delivers up to 16+ stops of dynamic range.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The successor to the Mark III that Alice started out with. "The Canon EOS 5D Mark III was the camera I learned to shoot on. It has been with me every step of the way. It has travelled with me from Iran to Iraq, to camps across Europe and the Middle East, and to the middle of the Pacific. I have told so many stories with that camera and it feels deeply personal," says Alice.


Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

High performance, f/1.4 aperture USM lens for general, low light and portrait photography. "I don't think anything beats Canon lenses. The glass is absolutely beautiful," says Alice.

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