Giles Duley pauses for a moment when I ask him how the past few weeks have been for him, and then answers with characteristic understatement. “Weird,” he says, smiling. Two years after the photographer lost both legs and an arm after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan, recent months have been, even by his own standards, fairly extraordinary. In November he went back to Afghanistan to finish the job he started back in 2011 – to document the civilians caught up in the messy, ongoing conflict. He was accompanied by a camera crew for an extraordinary Channel 4 documentary that aired a couple of weeks ago, the first ten minutes of which featured graphic footage taken by the medics who saved his life in the minutes after the explosion.
“It was very important for me to put it in there, even though it meant that I made a film that nobody who I care about could really watch. As far as I was concerned these were my last moments and it’s a hard thing to watch. But how could I document these people’s stories if I wasn’t prepared to put mine out there?”
These stories make up his new show opening tonight at London’s KK Outlet. The pictures, taken in a charity-run hospital, are powerful and poignant without being mawkish. Giles is less effusive. “I am my own harshest critic, but I would say these are no worse than the pictures I took two years ago. I could not have done better then and for me that was always the biggest struggle – I didn’t want this to be a vanity project. If you are taking pictures of people in traumatic environments then you have to be doing a good job of it.”
The photograph of which he is most proud is a head and shoulders portrait of a patient who lost both his legs (above). The fear and desolation of a man facing up to an uncertain future in a country where amputees are treated as burdens on their families is etched on his features. “I am very proud of that picture. A lot of editors would say that you need to get the fact he has no legs into the picture. I like to think I would have done the same two years ago but definitely now I am very aware that you do not need to show that to tell his story.”
“You use three mechanisms to balance – your feet, your inner ear and your eyesight. Well I lost my feet, my inner ear was damaged and so when I was shutting one eye to take a picture it was really hard to stay upright.”
On a purely practical level, Giles says the biggest challenge going back into the field was balance. “You use three mechanisms to balance – your feet, your inner ear and your eyesight. Well I lost my feet, my inner ear was damaged and so when I was shutting one eye to take a picture it was really hard to stay upright. I had to learn how to balance but it was very stressful – I was very conscious that operating theatres are not a good place to fall over in.”
Emotionally, Giles says the hardest thing was actually seeing people in intensive care – in similar predicaments he faced but without anywhere near the medical expertise he was lucky enough to receive. By contrast spending time with the amputees was ok: “I wake up every morning and see missing limbs so I think it was less shocking for me than other people.” And moreover he could tell that his presence, the fact a western photographer with similar injuries was back up and about living his life, gave them much-needed encouragement.
What had changed was the way he thought about his work. “Some photograpgers don’t even like to put captions on their work but I have realised that I do have an opinion as a photographer. Photography is a three-way conversation between the subject, yourself and the viewer. Artists can get obsessed with the coversation between them and the subject but there is no point if there’s isn’t a viewer. “
That doesn’t mean that he set out with political points to make. “You have to be very careful. If you are having a conversation but one person is really intransigent about their opinions then it is not actually a conversation.”
There were simple facts he wanted to capture – like the fact that since the invasion not a single hospital has been built by the occupying forces, which he clearly sees as a failure of our duty of care to these civilians, but he sums up his overall point succinctly. “War is shit. It doesn’t matter the rights and wrongs of these wars, everyone pays a price.”
“War is shit. It doesn’t matter the rights and wrongs of these wars, everyone pays a price.”
He is off to Syria soon for work but future projects might go in a more prosaic direction – he’s fascinated by getting on a train in London and taking pictures of the passengers and the views across as many continents as he can travel by rail. Right now though he knows the narrative of the disabled photographer will stick around for a bit longer. “I just hope after a while the disabled bit gets dropped.”
Giles Duley: Afghanistan (2012) runs until March 30.