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Giles Duley interview

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The following feature is available free for reproduction in full or in part.

Giles Duley is not your average photographer. He turned his back on a lucrative career in celebrity and fashion photography to become a documentary photographer, travelling the world to bring the plight of the downtrodden and voiceless to popular attention. He is also not your average photographer because, in early 2011, he trod on an IED in Afghanistan, and lost his legs, one arm, and almost his life. Yet his injuries have not stopped him working, or dented his determination to help others. Last month, he returned to Afghanistan with his camera. This time, a Channel 4 crew accompanied him, keen to find out a little more about Duley’s remarkable story. Here, he tells just a part of it.

You started out as a fashion and music photographer, and were doing very well. Why did you decide to leave that behind?

To be honest, I always wanted to do documentary photography – that’s what first got me into photography, reading Don McCullin’s autobiography when I was about 19. That was my dream. But I started getting offered jobs to photograph bands, and that led into fashion – and at that age I was quite willingly distracted. So it was almost by accident that I became a celebrity and fashion photographer. I loved doing it, but after ten years I was pretty sick of the industry and the lack of depth to things. It had always been my intention to do more serious work, so when I was about 30 I jacked in what I was doing – which was lucrative, working for GQ, Arena and Esquire. And moving into documentary wasn’t easy, but it was something I wanted to do. So in about 2001 I made the move.

What sacrifices did the change entail?

I sold my flat to fund it all, I gave up everything really. I put all my stuff in storage; I didn’t have my own place for about four years. I did care work to fund some of my projects. It really was a labour of love, but I felt it was really important to do. The problem is, once you start doing it, you become aware of how important it is. My personal remit was always to go and do work in places where other photographers weren’t working. If I got somewhere and there was another photographer there, I was in the wrong place. So what you realise is, if you don’t go out there and take these pictures, nobody else is going to tell these stories. So as I became better known for the work, I had more people getting in touch and asking me to go and document stories. It’s really hard, once you start doing it, to turn away from it. But on a financial level it was very difficult, because that kind of work is not so appreciated. I suppose that was always hard for me, knowing what I could earn in one day of doing a celebrity portrait, whereas you could spend a month in the middle of Sudan and not get paid for doing that. But photography is not always about money. A photograph as a document is an important thing in its own right, whether or not it is deemed to have financial value. I’m not sure my bank manager would agree, mind you.

Do you have a favourite shot or a proudest moment from your work?

That’s always a really difficult one. It’s hard to feel pleased with any of the pictures, because of the subject matter. I’ve won some awards for my photography, and it’s great to have those, but to be honest I used to feel uncomfortable about them, because at the end of the day, I’ve photographed somebody’s suffering. So it’s hard to choose a favourite photograph. In terms of feeling it worthwhile, it can just be little things. Once I was in Bangladesh, doing a story on Rohingya refugees – their plight has gone unmarked for a long time. And I went to an unofficial refugee camp, where they weren’t allowed any help from the UN or any aid agencies, and the people there were suffering terribly. People had been dying there of very basic medical problems for 20 years. And I spoke to the village elder and asked to take some portraits. And the next day I went in and set up to take my pictures, and there were dozens and dozens of people there with terrible illnesses, and people carrying their sick and dying relatives. I got in a panic, because there were so many of them, I thought they were assuming I was a doctor, and I turned to the village elder and explained that these people had to realise that I wasn’t a doctor, I couldn’t help them. And he said “No, they’re aware of that. But nobody has been here for 20 years – at least, as a photographer, you can tell their story.” Sometimes, when you’re doing this work, you think “I wish I was a doctor. I wish I could do something to help people.” And so there was a degree of validation – the feeling that it is worthwhile, doing what I do.

And then, in early 2011, everything changed. Tell me what happened.

I was in Afghanistan – it’s not really a place I would normally go to – most of my work has been in Africa – most of the stories are already being told in Afghanistan. But I felt that there were a couple of stories there that I hadn’t seen, and I felt that I wanted to capture them. One was showing the life of soldiers, and about their own stories – where they come from. Because in many ways they are as much victims of the war as anybody else. They come from poor and often difficult backgrounds, and then they’re sent to the other side of the world to fight. So I wanted to record their stories. So I was embedded and living with them. I’d been with a small unit of soldiers for a few weeks, and on one of the patrols we were on, we’d been ambushed a couple of days before, from a compound, so we’d gone back there to search it. It was a dawn patrol, and it was actually quite quiet at that moment. The Americans had made a perimeter around this compound, and were going in to search it. And as they were doing that, I turned to chat to one of the other soldiers, and as I did so, I stepped on an IED.

What happened next?

I never lost consciousness. It was quite a surreal moment, really. I remember being thrown up in the air. I would describe it as jumping into a freezing cold sea – you have your breath taken from you, you’re bewildered and confused – that’s kind of what happened to me. I landed on my side. I could see my hand had been blown off. I couldn’t sit up, so I thought at that point that I was paralysed. I knew the seriousness of my injuries. And then it was just a case of waiting for the medics to get to me. The guys I was on patrol with were great. They got the tourniquets on within a few minutes, which saved my life. But then I had to wait for the helicopter to come and pick me up, and then I got medevac-ed out.

The guys in the helicopter were also absolutely instrumental in saving your life, weren’t they?

Yeah, absolutely. You can’t praise those people enough. For 20 minutes, or however long the journey was, the medics kept me going. I never lost consciousness throughout the whole flight. Obviously at that point you think you’re going to die, and it’s a pretty stressful time, so to have some people there who were very calm, and who talked everything through with me – yeah, they were incredibly important.

And then you were flown back to the UK, where you spent a couple of months hovering close to death…

Yeah. I was flown back to the UK, and as well as losing both my legs and my arm, I had a lot of internal injuries, and also infections that got in. For 46 days I was in intensive care. During that whole period it was touch-and-go. At one point, my lungs had stopped working, so I was on breathing apparatus, my kidneys stopped working, so I was on dialysis. They called in my family twice to say their goodbyes. It was a miracle that I managed to pull through it.

You were taken to the army rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, weren’t you?

Yeah. I started your rehab in around September 2011. It was a frustrating process, because there were quite a few problems that had to be corrected surgically, so I kept having to go off and have surgery done, and then got going again. It was a lot of stop and starts. I had over 30 operations in that period, so every time you think you’re getting somewhere, you have to go off and have another operation. So it was a frustrating process. But I suppose by Christmas 2011 I was taking my first steps in public on my new legs, and I think I left rehab for the final time in April 2012.

In amongst all of this, you also had the blossoming of a relationship, didn’t you?

Yeah. My girlfriend Jen and I had been dating before I went to Afghanistan, but really nothing had developed. When I left for Afghanistan I had told her how I felt, and that I was in love with her, and she was a little unsure about things for various reasons. And she actually replied to say that she felt the same, the day that I was injured, so I never got to see that email. So I didn’t know that she was in love with me until two months later, when I was well enough for her to come and visit. So it was a pretty surreal relationship, in that for the first six months of it, she was visiting me in hospital. It was about a year before we were able to have any time alone. So it’s been a difficult, challenging relationship, but it’s got stronger and stronger. I think if we can get through that, we can get through pretty much anything.

How important was it for you to get back behind the camera?

When I got injured, when I first arri9ved back in the UK, I was in and out of consciousness, and actually the first thing I said to my sister when I saw her was that I was still a photographer. For me, my identity is so wrapped up in photography. I said right from the beginning that I wanted my life back. Having my life back meant I would be able to live independently and carry on my work. So it was a huge part of my motivation, to get back to doing what I love doing.

You worked as a photographer at the Paralympics – what was that experience like?

My work there was relatively limited – I was just starting to get going again. I was working for Otto Bock, who are the sponsors of all the equipment there, so I was doing behind-the-scenes pictures for them. For me, it was nice to be around the Paralympic athletes, and to be there, but it was in some ways still frustrating, because I felt like I wasn’t back doing my real work. It was a step in the right direction.

When did the cameras start following you for the Channel 4 documentary?

They started following me a couple of weeks after the Paralympics. I did a couple of little bits, but mainly they started following me when I went back to Chicago. I went there in late September/early October 2012. I was doing a talk in Chicago, so they filmed me doing that, but also, more importantly, it was the first time I had gone back to America, so I met up with two of the medevac crew that had rescued me. I’d stayed in contact with them ever since I was able to in hospital, and we’d sort of become friends online, but it was something that we all wanted to do. While the rest of the crew was back in Afghanistan, two of them were in America, so we arranged to meet up in Chicago. We met up, and it was a very emotional meeting, because for them as well, I’d become a kind of symbol of the work that they did there, because most of the guys, unfortunately, in my circumstances didn’t survive. So for them it was really important to have somebody who hadn’t just survived, but was getting on with their life. They could see my life and the things I was doing. It was a very, very moving moment – a lot of tears, and a lot of whisky.

The two often seem to go together!

Yeah, and we ended up in a tattoo parlour, which is always the sign of a good night out.

Why did you agree to have cameras follow you? You’ve said in other interviews that you are, by nature, a very private person…

Right from the beginning of this happening, people wanted to record my story and record my recovery. People were getting in contact when I was still in Intensive Care! Personally, I wasn’t particularly interested in that – telling my story didn’t seem that important. But quite early on what I realised was because of what has happened to me, the work that I do would get more attention. One of the hardest aspects of the work that I do is getting people to actually see it. So I realised that my story could be used as a way to tell other people’s stories. The way I see it, what I’m doing hasn’t changed, but my voice has got a lot louder. I had so many offers from people wanting to make documentaries, but for me it was important to find a team of people who were as interested in the current affairs, in the stories I was documenting, as much as my story. I really didn’t want it to be about me. I describe this as being like a pebble in a pool – you get all these ripples, and all these ripples effect those around you. Those stories are really fascinating, from the surgeons to the medevac crew to the people I’ll be photographing again. So I saw myself as the glue holding those stories together. It also helped me make sense of what happened to me, to be able to reason that something good came out of this really hard experience. If that meant me using my experience to tell the story of other people, then it kind of made it a bit worthwhile.

Have you had to adapt your approach to photography?

I guess I’m quite lucky in that I was never a war photographer – I was somebody that was interested in people caught up in conflicts, in the consequences of war on people. What I mean by that is I was never an action photographer. It wasn’t a case of running and ducking. Obviously I can’t run around now, but that didn’t affect my work much. Having said that, it’s a lot harder for me to take pictures – I can’t bend down, or reach into corners or move quickly. So one of the effects is, obviously, mobility. And also my inner ear was damaged, which is quite common in blasts, which has made balancing quite hard. And when you’re on prosthetic legs, which is a bit like walking on stilts, it makes it incredibly difficult to balance. And then when you look through a camera, you lose the focus of the way you normally balance. So looking into a camera makes it really hard for me to keep my balance. So there are a lot of challenges. But then you get the plus side, which is people’s empathy and connection has grown. The kind of stories I’ve always done, I’ve had what I hope is a compassionate feel for the people I’m photographing. But there’s always an element where you’re photographing somebody that’s suffering, and they’re looking at you thinking “Who is this person, who can just walk away from all of this.” So right from the beginning I realised that I may have lost some mobility, but what I’ve gained is an increased connection with the people I’m photographing. It creates a bond, which hopefully will make my photographs stronger than they were.

The film followed you on a recent trip back to Afghanistan. Why did you want to go back there?

In some ways it was as simple as saying “I just want to go back to work.” That was the story that I’d been supposed to be doing next before I had the accident, a story on civilian casualties. I’d promised it to a guy called Gino Strada, who runs this charity, Emergency. I told him a couple of years ago I was going to do this story. For me that was always the obvious story to go back to, because that was what I was doing. It was as though a pause button had been put on my life, and this was a way of taking off that pause button and continuing from where I had been. But of course although I was already planning to do this story, it had more resonance after what had happened. I had gone through something very similar to the people I was photographing. Everyone I was photographing was a civilian casualty of the war, and it just seemed such an obvious story for me to do. It was also an opportunity to compare and contrast the level of care out there with what I got. It was almost meant to be, I don’t think there could have been a more appropriate story for me to do.

How did the people you were photographing react to you? Did you notice a different dynamic?

You have to put it into context. There’s always an element, when somebody is injured, they may well not give a shit what I’ve been through or anyone else has been through. They’re just focused on themselves, and I know exactly how that feels. So there were some people who it really didn’t make any difference to whatsoever, they were just dealing with what they were dealing with. But there were people, particularly people on the road to recovery, who, seeing what I was capable of doing, I hope in some small way took a degree of inspiration from that. I accept that my prosthetics and my medical support is better than they have, at least it shows, in some ways, what is possible. In somewhere like Afghanistan, disability can be seen as such a burden, as the end of your life. I think to see somebody back working and carrying on with their life meant a lot.

Were you pleased with the photos you got?

I’ll be honest, I’m never happy with my work. I think I was probably harder on myself than normal, because I thought it was really important that the pictures I was taking were good – I didn’t want this to be a vanity project, I didn’t want to go back there and take the pictures just because I wanted to prove that I could take the pictures. At the end of the day, this kind of work is serious work, and you’re photographing people in moments of distress. Unless you felt that you were bringing something to the table, you shouldn’t be doing it. My fear was that I wouldn’t be good enough. So I was pretty hard on myself. As I say, I’m never really happy with my work, so there were a lot of moments of self-doubt, but I think at the end of it, I looked at the pictures and thought “I don’t think I could have done any better than these before this happened.” So it was a victory in that sense.

Was it weird having a camera crew with you while you were working?

Yeah. As you said, I’m quite a private person anyway, and as a photographer, I’m used to working completely on my own. I don’t even work with journalists or people around me. I think a one-on-one connection is the most important part of what I do, so suddenly having a load of people around me was tricky. But I couldn’t have asked to be with better people, or people I got on with better. At times it got frustrating, but throughout it all there was an awareness of what we were producing, and how important it was.

Throughout all that you’ve been through, what’s been your lowest moment?

They still come and go. In some ways, some of the lowest points have been since going back to Afghanistan. In a lot of ways, it’s always easier when you set all these goals. I’m going to get myself out of hospital. I’m going to learn how to feed myself. I’m going to learn to walk again. I’m going to learn how to take photographs again. I’m going to go back to Afghanistan. On the horizon, things are always going to be a lot better. And then when I got back from Afghanistan, I suddenly went “Okay, well things are not going to improve that much more.” I will get a little stronger, but essentially there’s no big milestone to come. You have to accept that this is the life ahead. Despite being able to get around on my legs and do certain things, at the end of the day, life is painful, life is very difficult. You wake up in the morning and you want to make a cup of tea, and you can’t get yourself out of bed. There are some times, still, when you think “I don’t know if I can spend the rest of my life like this.” I think that’s something that will never go away. But I just have to focus on what I can do. You look through your life and realise you can still do 99 per cent of the things you did before. If you focus on those, life ain’t so bad.

What are your ambitions for the future?

Just to find ways to carry on doing my photography. My voice is louder now, there are opportunities that have arisen that wouldn’t have done had this not happened to me – the documentary for one thing. So there are lots of new opportunities ahead, and more so than ever I feel that I have a duty to tell the stories of people who have gone through similar things to me but who don’t have the voice that I have. Each day I wake up, and I feel how painful my legs are, and the discomfort and the difficulty of getting around, and all I think about is all those people all around the world who are finding it even harder than me. It feels like a duty to tell their stories now.

Walking Wounded: Return to the Frontline is on Channel 4 in week 8 (16 – 22 February).

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