Valentina Gomes dos Santos talks us through an exhibition which highlights the true difficulties of life as a refugee
Imagine going on a trip which was initially supposed to last 2 days, and ended up lasting 2 years. This is what happened to Alice Aedy, a british documentary photographer and film-maker. In early 2016, Alice decided to go to Calais, France to witness and document the life of refugees in the camp. The short-trip, 1 hour and 20 minutes away from her home in London was supposed to last a couple of days. Little did she know that this adventure would be so shocking that she would end up involved in a two year project. “The refugee crisis wasn’t something distant from me anymore, it was 1 hour and 20 minutes away from my doorstep. I could not pretend to unsee what I had just seen in Calais.”, said the 23 year-old woman who spent 2 months volunteering and photographing the life in the camp. At that time, Alice was already involved with the organisation Help Refugees, specifically providing food to refugee camps and constructing schools and housing. But she wanted to go further. Greece was her next destination, as she wanted to witness and help the new refugees that were just arriving to the European continent. During the three months Alice lived in Greece, she closely accompanied families and got involved with their struggles, dreams and the life of refugees. “I saw the Macedonian border being closed by a fence; people with no hopes at all”.
“I was shooting with film and the -17°C literally broke it in half”
A very similar thing happened to the photographer and film-maker Jack Harries, who was already well-known for his Youtube channel “Jacksgap”, with more than 4 million subscribers. Jack was also supposed to go for a couple of days to a refugee camp, but ended up being part of the Help Refugees project volunteering and documenting. His work was focused on the largest European illegal squat in Belgrade, Serbia, where more than 2000 Afghan and Pakistani migrants live in poor conditions. The most shocking part of his work is the fact that it was documented during the rough Serbian winter. “Everyone had only one hot meal a day… When you entered the squat you could see children, men and women burning every kind of material trying to keep warm, and by that they were creating toxic smoke. Cases of burns were reported from the inhalation of that smoke” said the 24-year old photographer. He also added: “it was so cold that my camera stopped working. I was shooting with film and the -17°C literally broke it in half. Just so you can have an idea of what those people were going through without heating or proper clothes.”.
Months of on-site evidence of the refugee crisis in France, Greece and Serbia made these two young activists come up with a way to raise awareness to the topic through their work. An exhibition of the photographs taken by both Alice and Jack was held at Central Saint Martins (UAL) in London on the 28th of November. The tiny, but breathtaking exhibition was followed by a talk with the photographers and other volunteers and activists of the Help Refugees organisation. Discussions around Brexit, the European Union migration policy, the Conservative government and ways to support refugees took place in the two-hour talk, while fascinating, yet heartbreaking pictures decorated the room.
The organisation they take part in, Help Refugees, has now opened the first refugee shop in the world. In the store “Choose Love” located in Soho, London, the idea is to buy goods, but go home with nothing. All the products bought will be handed to a refugee somewhere in Europe or the Middle East, and it is a good alternative for those who want to help even from afar. From blankets and clothes to medical equipment and food, everything displayed is essential for life as a refugee.
Alice’s and Jack’s work offer a insight into the daily life of refugee camps across Europe. A much closer reality than most of us may think. And together with the Help Refugees organisation they provide easy and differentiated ways to engage and contribute.