Giles Duley used to live the rock’n’roll life of a fashion photographer, but now travels the world’s war zones documenting the lives of those caught up in conflict. He stepped on a landmine while working in Afghanistan and lost three of his limbs, and very nearly his life. This is his story.
“I always say that the doctors, the surgeons, the nurses, they saved my life physically. They got me going. My family was there to support me. But everybody, everybody questioned me whether I could work again. Nobody believed it. I was supported to finally go back and do the story in Lebanon of the Syrian refugees. And these families, like Aya family and Khouloud’s family. They didn’t look at me and think “he can’t do his job”. They trusted me with their stories. They let me tell their stories. When that work was published is when people started commissioning me again to work. So I always say it was those Syrian refugees, the families of Aya, Khouloud, Reem and many others. They were the ones that gave me my life back. That’s why my commitment to telling the stories of refugees is a personal one because I owe them everything. Because without them I would not be able to be a photographer.”
Melissa Fleming (MF): When I did this interview, I was in complete awe. In my entire life I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so strong. So near to death and then able to just use the power of his mind and his will to overcome. His whole goal in life is, it’s not about him, it’s to contribute. It’s to help others. I just felt incredibly inspired by him. Giles Duley is a documentary photographer, he’s covered some of the worst conflicts of our time. He was a victim in one of those conflicts – Afghanistan.
Giles Duley (GD): I could see my legs had gone. It was just like a shard of bone remaining from my right leg. My left arm was kind of mangled and pretty much on fire. It was a miracle I survived that day. I was just lucky, it just wasn’t my day to go.
Melissa Fleming (MF): We send Giles out on assignment to photograph the lives of people affected by conflict. But he started out as a rock n’ roll photographer. This is his story. I’m Melissa Fleming and this is “Awake At Night”.
Giles Duley (GD): Well you know photography came really to me by accident. I was 18 years old. I was actually in the States on sports scholarship. I was the world’s worst boxer. I remember my coach gave me a very backhanded compliment. He said “Giles, you take a punch really well”. But sport was my life. I loved sport. And I was involved in quite a minor car accident and it damaged my knees to the extent that I was told I would never do sport again.
I was flown back to the UK. I was in a hospital bed in London and I remember I was an angry young man, I was 18 years old. I really messed up at school. I struggled throughout my education. Sport had been my life and suddenly that had all been taken away from me. I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew I didn’t want to go to university, but I had no direction. And then in that very low point, when I sitting in the hospital, my godfather unfortunately passed away. When he died he left me two things; one was a book by the war photographer Don McCullin and another was an Olympus OM-10 camera. These two small gifts changed my life completely. I remember looking through these images of Don McCullin’s, these black and white stark images of the Vietnam War, famines in Biafra (Nigeria) and Bangladesh. And to this day, if I shut my eyes, I can still see those images so clearly. I knew there and then that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to tell stories like Don McCullin had. So I taught myself photography lying in a hospital bed. I had this little Olympus camera. I just photographed the doctors and nurses. I was 18 years old so mainly I photographed nurses. I taught myself photography and left full of good intentions to follow in the footsteps of Don McCullin. And I become a war photographer. But I had a few friends that were in bands, that were musicians, and they said “Would you come photograph our gigs and our concerts?” I did and it was fun. And I didn’t think much more of it than that. But some magazines saw the work and before I knew it, I was getting phone calls and magazines were commissioning me to travel around the world to photograph the biggest rock bands of the time. And you know, I was like 19-20 years old and suddenly I’m finding, you know, I’m on the road with Oasis or I’m flying to Miami to photograph Marilyn Manson or Mariah Carey. And very quickly my good intentions of travelling around the world to be a war photographer kind of went out the window. You know, I was suddenly in this amazing very glamorous life and it was a lot of fun. I can’t deny that at that point in my life, it was an amazing experience.
MF: But you became disillusioned at some point. What happened?
GD: I started to look at the way it became more about advertising. The magazines I worked for, when I started, they used to have covers with really inspiring people. People who had done something with their life. And suddenly, I was being asked to photograph somebody who’d basically been in Big Brother. You know a “celebrity culture” really started to take over. And I struggled with that. And I also struggled a lot with the way that women were represented in the magazines I worked for.
It reached a sort of climax, I guess it was in my late 20s. I remember I was doing a shoot in the Charlotte Street Hotel in London. There was an argument going on between a young actress and an editor of a magazine about whether she would be in her underwear or not. And she was quite upset and crying. That was that kind of sudden moment. I sat there, and I saw her, and I thought “this is not why I became a photographer”. This is not what I ever intended to do. And so I had a rock n’ roll moment. It was reported at the time that in the middle of the shoot I’d taken all these cameras, my tripod, all my equipment, and thrown out the window of the Charlotte Street Hotel and smashed in the street outside like a true kind of rock and roll band member. The reality is I’m kind of not that rock n roll. My friends know me as being more of a sort of quiet Agatha Christie type, radio person, very relaxed. And so in fact, what happened is I just thrown my cameras on the bed. I had a minor hissy fit. It was just unfortunate because they bounced off the bed and out the window. And the story of me smashing my cameras was born. I’m was only 28 years old. But I thought that was the end of photography. I left London and I sank into a really deep depression. I thought I’d wasted my opportunity of life. I left, I got a job in a bar at first, in a pub. I was pretty much drinking myself to death. I was depressed, I didn’t work, I didn’t go out. I really, really sunk into about as deep depression as you can possibly get to and survive.
MF: How did you pull out?
GD: Well, it was at the lowest, lowest, lowest point. I lived by the sea and I remember really contemplating. Did I want to carry on with my life? And I really didn’t. I couldn’t see any way forward. And then at that lowest point, I remember actually being on the beach and just contemplating whether I want to just walk into the sea or not. And then I said to myself “You know what? Think of yourself now as your life is over. Think of it now as a new life. There’s only one person who can give you that opportunity, and that’s you!” And I remember I had a mantra in my head and the mantra was “I just want a second chance”. So, at that moment, I really tried to start rebuilding my life and I got a job as a care worker. I got a job looking after a young guy called Nick who had very severe autism. And I knew that if I didn’t care about myself, which I didn’t, if I didn’t want to live for myself, which I didn’t. But having somebody whose life was in my hand, somebody who everyday needed my support, that gave me focus. I’ve always said to people that if there’s a point in your life where you stop caring about yourself, then find a role where you see that somebody else needs you.
MF: What was it about caring for somebody else that spoke to you specifically?
GD: I looked after Nick who had very severe autism for a couple of years, and then I looked after a gentleman who had multiple sclerosis and who was bed bound. And that became one of the most humbling jobs because quite literally you know, I’d have to wash him, in the mornings. He couldn’t control his bowel movements. He was completely dependent on me, I had to feed him. Really, it’s funny because we look down on care workers you know, in England it’s one of the lowest pay jobs you could have. And yet it’s one of the most important and it’s one of the most intimate things. The great irony of course is that when I was injured I had to go through it myself. When I was injured, I lost both my legs and my arm but my right hand was smashed to pieces so it was in a cast. I couldn’t feed myself, I couldn’t sit up. I had a colostomy bag because my bowels were injured so I couldn’t go to the toilet on my own. I’d lost every independent action. So you know it was certainly not lost on me that a few months before I got injured, I’d be looking after somebody and pushing them around in a wheelchair and feeding them. And a few years later, I was exactly in the same situation. It’s humbling on both levels. I think it’s something that everybody should have to do at some point. To care for another on a very one to one basis because that is humanity at its most naked.
MF: How did you go from caring for people in need to photographing people who desperately needed care because they were victims of war and conflict?
GD: Photography will always be the most important thing in my life but during that period, when I was doing the care work for Nick, the young man with autism, photography was not part of my life. I’d smash my camera so I didn’t have any cameras. I took no photographs. And then one day, I was talking to Nick’s family and Nick, he could express himself to me and to the people very close but he would also struggle just to have a normal conversation with somebody. So when he met doctors, when he met his psychologist, they’d never really got the extent of what he was going through. And one of the main issues he had was self-harming where he would punch himself to the point of black eyes, bleeding nose, and his face bleeding really violently. And we couldn’t really get in the support that he needed. When he tried to tell his story to people, they maybe didn’t listen or didn’t come across. That’s when we had this kind of eureka moment. We suddenly went “well, why don’t you, his family asked me, take photographs of Nick’s life? You could document his life and we could tell his story that way.”
I started to photograph Nick’s daily life. One day, he allowed me to photograph him just after he’d been self-harming. It’s an incredibly disturbing image of blood rushing down his face and he’s looking straight down that camera. I remember the next time we saw his healthcare professionals, the team that supported him, and we laid out these photographs in front of them. When they saw these images, these documents, they said “we got to do more, we didn’t realize it was that bad”. And that’s when I realized the power of the gift that I had. Photography had always been about doing beautiful pictures of models, bands and fashion. Now I realized it could change somebody’s life. I realized that I could help people to tell their story through my images. And that’s when everything clicked. My love of photography and what I’d found in my passion of helping others came together. For that moment, it all made sense. So I moved to Angola. I went there because I had a friend that was working there with the UN. I based myself there and started working with local NGOs, trying to learn the skill of telling people’s stories.
MF: Because you also thought that not only would it help them to get people to pay attention to them, but also it would drive action?
GD: Absolutely. I mean, I set out not to be a photographer but to try and create change through my photography. My concern, right from the beginning, was what happens to civilian populations caught up in war? What happens to the people who are in a situation where a fight is going on around them? You know, I still think it’s almost impossible to photograph wars without in some way glamorizing it. I know that from my own experience because as a child if I saw pictures from the Vietnam War or pictures from the Falklands, I thought it was cool, it was amazing, it was people with guns. You don’t look at it and see the horror. I realize that’s what I had to do. My job was to try and show the real face of what conflict is and what it does to families, communities and individuals.
MF: You call yourself not a war photographer but a love photographer. Why is that?
GD: Yeah if the war photography label gets used, I’m always… I’m an antiwar photographer. You know that’s my main role. What I’m trying to capture is the essence of humanity and the relationships of people, those little intimacies, those little moments that are universal to us all. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a mud hut in South Sudan or if you are in a tent in Jordan, if you’re in a flat in Brixton in London. Within those walls, what you will see within a family would be identical. You’ll see exactly the same moments happen. A mother feeding her baby, a father brushing his daughter’s hair before she goes to school, kids playing with each other and knocking each other over. It’s exactly the same, anywhere. And more and more that’s what I focused on. And I’ve focused on those little intimacies, those moments that we all relate to.
MF: Can you tell me what brought you to Afghanistan? What brought you to the place on that fateful day where you lost three of your limbs when a device exploded at your feet?
GD: I was in Afghanistan. I have talked about the fact that I’m not a war photographer. I was not interested in photographing people firing their guns, but I was very interested in what was happening at that time. And that was that more American soldiers were killing themselves than were actually dying in Afghanistan. I wanted to try and understand that. As part of that, I was embedded with a group of American soldiers.
I spent a lot of my time around conflicts especially in places like South Sudan, Angola. So it was something I was used to, and I wasn’t actually interested in taking pictures of them shooting their guns. I was interested in what was happening in their downtime, what was happening in the evenings, what were the discussions going on.
We were on patrol one day and we had been under fire most of that week. It was getting quite tense where we were in Kandahar in Afghanistan. On this particular day, in February 2011, we had gone out on patrol, on foot patrol, and we got ambushed. As we were taking cover, that’s when I stepped on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). There were just six of us on patrol, it was a very small patrol. I was the seventh person. Luckily I was the only one injured. I remember distinctly, a sense of a click or something happening, and then just being in the air. I don’t remember a sound but I remember a sense of heat just engulfing me. This white heat blinding and then landing was a thud on my side. I thought I broke my back because I couldn’t move, I couldn’t sit up. I could see my legs had gone. There was just like a shard of bone remaining from my right leg. My left arm was kind of mangled and pretty much on fire. My right hand was badly damaged as well. I did think for a moment “these are going to be my last moments”. You know, I’ve seen people with far less injuries succumb to them very quickly. I didn’t feel a huge amount of pain. I was lying there on my back. I remember I was looking up a tree. It was a beautiful Afghan spring morning. There were birds singing, the blue sky. And I do remember me saying “what a beautiful place to be my last moments”. But then also thinking “no you know I’m not dying here in Afghanistan. I’m not going to be at my end”.
Then the crew that was with me, the team, they got to me, they’ve put some tourniquets on. They had to stop the bleeding. That was the first time I felt real pain. I actually remember that’s quite a good thing. I thought “if I’m feeling pain that means, maybe, there’s some life in me” and then I remember saying to myself “Look, you know, I don’t think you are going to make it. But I reckon you can keep going for two minutes, two minutes is not a big challenge. So just focus on your breathing. Don’t think about things you can’t do and try to focus on that.” It’s actually very strange looking back on it. Chris Metz was the sergeant leading the patrol. He was knelt down next to me and he has recorded this about how we had a very normal conversation. We talked about American football, I asked him to make sure that my laptop was sent back to the UK. It was strangely a calm moment. I remember watching these helicopters coming in the valley, coming to pick me up. It was like a scene from a film. They were firing up their flares. And Chris even said to me, I don’t really smoke, but he said: “do you want a cigarette?”. I thought it is not going to do much harm now. So he was kind of feeding me with this cigarette. As I said it’s like a scene from a film and I was almost detached from it. I was then picked up, put on the back of this Medevac helicopter and I still never lost consciousness. I was fully conscious for that. That journey back, a 20 minute flight back to Kandahar.
There were the medics on the back. Chris Metz, Cole Reece. You know those guys and Phil. They were three people that I was sharing where I thought the last moments of my life with. We had a conversation and I remember there was a moment on that journey. It’s very interesting because they’ve been interviewed about that journey as well and they recounted the same thing but without knowing what I had said. And what I said is that on that journey, I was still doing this thing where I kept thinking two minutes, okay five minutes, you can do five minutes now. Keep alive for five minutes, focus on your breathing. And people talk about flashbacks. They talk about people remembering things that happened in their life. I had the opposite. I had these flash forwards and I suddenly started to think about things I still needed to achieve; the work that I still wanted to do, the idea of having a family maybe one day. All these things were going through my mind and it was about halfway through the journey. I remember feeling very calm then. And when Chris and C.J. and these people were interviewed about that helicopter journey, they said it was really strange, they go “halfway through that flight something changed”. All the signs went very stable. And they didn’t even give me morphine because I was so stable and talking to them that they didn’t even want to do anything that would upset that balance. So something magical happened on that journey.
MF: You were able to control your destiny with your mind.
GD: I think I just certainly was able to put myself into a very calm place. And there was a lesson I’ve really learnt throughout my life is that sometimes there’s things you can’t control and you can’t focus on those things. Focus on things you can control. And I knew I couldn’t control most of what was going on. The only thing I could control was keeping myself calm and breathing. We landed in Kandahar. It’s quite funny because as they were taking me out the back of the helicopter, I actually thanked everybody on the crew. And months later when the crew got back in contact with me, they were like “okay who the hell says thank you”. I was like “well I’m British. Now my mother brought me up with good manners”. But they would try to work out that you know, who is this guy that was in this position to still say thank you? At that point in the UK, less than 20 people had survived a triple amputation by bomb blast. In fact, the first soldier was only a couple of years before me. You know I was a 40 years old man that had gone through that. It was a miracle I survived that day. Nobody can really figure it out. Nobody can figure out how I was still talking and having conversations when we landed. I was just lucky that day. It just wasn’t my day to go.
MF: When you were lying on the ground realizing that you had been hit and that your legs were missing, you also saw your body parts. Can you describe that scene?
GD: It’s hard to ever explain to anyone that hasn’t seen anything like that. It’s beyond words really. It’s interesting it was actually photographed. There was a Canadian photographer embedded with the Medevac crew to pick me up. There were photographs taken moments after I was injured and actually film footage of the guy with the helmet cams filmed the whole journey. So you know I’ve seen the whole of this footage. I’ve seen the photographs of it and I still feel slightly detached from it. It’s slightly alien to me but it’s beyond imagination to see your legs gone. And they had gone in a terrible way. It was beyond shocking. You can’t process that information. But what I knew straight away was that my life was never going to be the same, that this was not going to be an injury that I was ever going to recover from. There was no way my legs were coming back. My arm was obviously terribly damaged. I thought both my hands might be gone. I do remember thinking about the fact I could still see and think “well if I could still see, I can still be a photographer, I can still do that”. But it was, I knew, life changing. I knew from that moment on, nothing would ever be the same.
MF: And when you woke up in the hospital, how did you react?
GD: Well I was flown back to the U.K. and then I went to a hospital in Birmingham, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. And actually that was still touch and go. There’s 46 days then in intensive care. You know my brother’s sister sat by my bed 24 hours a day because they were told at any moment I could go. And again that was a series of miracles. You know at various points my lungs stop working, kidneys stopped working. Everything gave up at some point. At one point my body was overheating so much they didn’t know what to do. They were putting literally blocks of ice around my body. Some bright spark came up with the idea of connecting me to a transfusion machine and connecting that to a freezer element out of a domestic freezer. It was taking my blood out and virtually cooling it and putting it back in me. They would try everything they could. So many points they would say to my family “look, there’s nothing else we can do but we got this crazy idea with this” and they would do it. And every time somehow I will still be going. I was conscious of a lot of that time. I couldn’t communicate because my hand was in a cast. I had a tracheotomy so I could blink to communicate. But I remember it all. You know we talk about injury and pain but there’s something else, something deeper and that’s suffering. And those 46 days actually, a University in the states contacted me to do some research because it’s one of the longest stays in intensive care. And they actually equated, they were doing a study on the similarities between that and torture because when you are in intensive care the lights never go off. There’s a constant sound, you have no awareness of time or day because normally a stay is maximum of a day or two days. Because, literally, intensive care they are fighting to save your life. There’s no quiet moments, there’s always somebody pushing something in, pumping something in. It’s a constant process. As I say, you become very confused because there’s no day or night. It’s lights on 24/7, bright lights. There’s this constant noise, this constant fear of what are they going to do to you next. They’re not explaining things to you because it’s an emergency situation. And they call it “intensive care psychosis” that can happen after a few days. So 46 days I lay there going through that. And that’s something that is more life changing than my injuries were or anything else. That is a time when the days, the hours, the minutes just go on and you’re scared, you think you’re dying, you are dying. You see in the people’s faces the panic and people rushing around. You can’t have visitors, you can’t have anything. You have no control of your own body. You don’t feed yourself, food comes in through a tube, there’s no food. You don’t drink water, you can’t go to the toilet on your own. And 46 days is a long, long time of that. That’s something that really, my personality and who I am today, was forged in that experience.
GD: Strength. You know I left that thinking I’m unbreakable. You know I left that thinking that I could confront any challenge in my life. I left that thinking that the years of depression, the years of other challenges, all were put into perspective. I did have that sense that the people that I document, the people that I work with, who have suffered, that I had some idea of what they meant when they told me about suffering. That I really actually had for a moment kind of stepped in a living hell that many people are stuck in their whole lives. That was a gift, an insight that very few people have. Very few people really have gotten to that point.
MF: Do you have any pain from your injuries?
GD: Oh I’m in agony. I mean, pain is terrible. I mean, to use the prosthesis… It’s not something I ever really talk about. I don’t think it’s relevant on a daily basis to talk about. But yeah, pain is sometimes overwhelming. You know you get different pain. My legs bruise, you get blisters, they bleed. Doing the work I do, I know I push myself way beyond normal limits. So everyday, at the end of the day working in the field, I’m in so much discomfort. My left arm is in constant agony. I call that like a toothache pain, that throbbing pain for the nerve damage in the arms. Some of, my bowel injury still hurt. But early on somebody said to me, a nurse said: “you have a choice, you’re going to be in terrible pain for the whole of your life. You either choose a way of medication but the medication would be morphine and very strong based, or said you own the pain and you make that pain your own”. And that’s the route that I chose so I take no painkillers or medication. I’ve just taken it as an acceptance. Pain, you know, we see pain as an external thing. Pain is caused to you but actually pain is our body sending us messages. We control that pain. It’s actually us interpreting electric signals that are sent to our brain. What I tried to do right from an early point was just keep saying “okay thank you I’ve got the message. Thank you I’ve got the message. Thank you I’ve got the message”. And repeating that. I can’t say that it means that I don’t feel it. Of course I do. And my friends laugh. I catch my fingernail and I’ll be screaming blue murder or I’ll be like catch myself on a piece of paper and get it’ll cut me. I still complain about the silly things but the general pain that I feel each day it’s part of me now. That’s helped me to deal with it. But yeah, I mean if I had one gift, one dream, it would be to spend one day without pain.
MF: I mean you’ve spent a lot of time recently photographing refugees. Why refugees?
GD: In 2014, three years after I was injured is when I was really able to return to full time work and the first story I did was of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Really the most vulnerable refugees: single parent families, the elderly, and those living with disabilities. Doing those stories was transforming for me. There were two in particular: one was of a woman Khouloud who is paralysed by a sniper’s bullet. And the other was a young girl called Aya who, when I met her, was living in this tent. It was very damp and wet. It was a makeshift tent and she has spina bifida. She was four years old so she couldn’t even sit up on her own. I thought if I take a photograph she just like a victim. But I said to the team that was with us: “well I’d like to spend the day at least and just be here and get to know the family”. What I discovered is that this girl, Aya, was not a victim. She’s actually the feistiest 4 years old I’ve ever met in my life. She didn’t just run her family, she ran the whole refugee camp. You know everyone’s referred to as donkey and she’d be like “hey donkey do this, pick me up, and travel around.” She was an incredible spirit. The photograph I took of her was her with her sister playing hopscotch and it’s a really joyful photograph.
I think in many ways, in those camps, I’ve had a sense of liberation almost. I always say that the doctors, the surgeons, the nurses, they saved my life physically. They got me going. My family was there to support me. But everybody, everybody questioned me whether I could work again. Nobody believed it. I remember one of the darkest moments was actually coming out of hospital. I’d lost everything. I lost my home. I was bankrupt. I got no payouts, no support for getting injured. I was living in a bedsit in south London, there was mold on the walls. I’ve broken up with my fiancé. I was on my own. I had nothing. No work. Nothing was coming in and I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I was supported to finally go back and do the story in Lebanon of the Syrian refugees. And these families, like Aya family and Khouloud’s family. They didn’t look at me and think “he can’t do his job”. They trusted me with their stories. They let me tell their stories. When that work was published is when people started commissioning me again to work. So I always say it was those Syrian refugees, the families of Aya, Khouloud, Reem and many others. They were the ones that gave me my life back. That’s why my commitment to telling the stories of refugees is a personal one because I owe them everything. Because without them I would not be able to be a photographer. I would not be back telling stories.
MF: Giles, I have to say listening to you is extraordinarily inspiring. What is it that keeps you hopeful?
GD: I guess one of my favorite moments in my life was about a year after I was injured going to my sister’s house. I had spent most of that year in hospital beds. I had not seen any fresh air, nothing. This may sound really cliché but I remember sitting in my sister’s garden and feeling the sun on my face, feeling the breeze. My friends came around, we drunk some wine, we had some food. My sister is a great cook. My nephews were running around and everything was so precious. I do believe that is, I mean, I talk a lot about gifts that are being given, but that was the greatest gift was to appreciate life more than I ever had. The smallest things to me bring me so much happiness. I think I’m lucky. I might be the luckiest man in the world. People think “oh really?”. I am because I get to appreciate life more than anyone else does. I get every single moment even if I’m sat in a traffic jam. I’m grateful for that. Even though something upsets me, I’m grateful that I can feel sadness.
Everything is amazing when it’s taken away from you and you have it given back. Through my work again, it is exactly that same thing that I get to share these stories with people going through really terrible experiences. The amount of times we’re laughing and you know we’d be in a house that this bombed, family that’s been devastated, but there’ll be laughter and people these stories, and there’s always hope.
MF: But with all that you see covering people who are the victims of war, who have lost everything, who might still have love but still have so much loss. What is it that keeps you awake at night?
GD: Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I see hope and I get to have these amazing experiences with the people I document and I get to appreciate life myself. But there were times of course when you see the madness of war. There is no greater waste of human endeavor than war. There were times when I wanted to throw my camera away because pointing a camera at a war seems the most futile act you could possibly do. How can I stop what is happening by taking a single image? But the thing that really keeps me awake at night, the thing I really struggle with, is when somebody shares their story with me and somebody has told me about their experiences. They’ve trusted me with that story. And I still have it, it hasn’t been published or it hasn’t been heard, hasn’t been told anywhere. Until I can do that, that keeps me awake at night. That sense of responsibility to the people whose stories have been entrusted to me.