It is almost nine months since photographer Giles Duley was blown up by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, leaving him without both legs and his left arm. Yesterday we went to meet him as he put the final touches to his new London show, Becoming the Story, and found out that he is a man on an artistic mission – to tell stories other people don’t know how to tackle. In this in-depth interview, he explains why he was so driven to tell these hidden stories, and why he’s determined to keep doing so.
One day in 2002 – after a row with a former Big Brother contestant – Giles Duley walked off a shoot and turned his back on the world of music, fashion and celebrity photography, vowing to use his camera for more worthwhile purposes (work he would mainly finance himself).
His new show, opening this week at KK Outlet in Hoxton Square showcases the extraordinary fruits of that career-change: “This work represents what I have done since making that decision,” he said.
“I have an issue that a lot of photography is driven by financial constraints – a lot of stories are not being told because they are not commercially viable.
“There’s a picture in this show of a Sudanese woman giving birth and the baby died – it won an award so I know it’s not a shit picture and yet nobody would publish it. In a sense that means it has got no value, but how can you look at that picture and say it’s got no value?”
The pictures in this exhibition – from Angola, Bangladesh and Sudan – record complex, ongoing, yet no-less-harrowing humanitarian crises which the mainstream media often show little appetite for.
“I think what is worrying is the way we get obsessed with certain events. I don’t think we are scared to show pictures that show suffering – some of the pictures from Haiti were very graphic, but the media needs it to be an event, with that structure. They struggle if we are documenting something which has been going on for 20 years.
“I am often reluctant to put dates on the pictures because these things are generally timeless.
“You don’t really get people on the news saying: ‘Here’s a lot of people suffering, they have been suffering for 20 years and they will go on suffering. We just thought we should point it out.’
“But it’s hugely important that we’re aware. Because I am not a news photographer I can look at a picture I took five years ago, go back there today and take the same picture. That’s the tragedy, that nothing’s changed.”
One such project involved photographing the Burmese refugees in Bangladesh, forced to flee persecution but recognised neither in their new land or, mostly, by the UN.
“There are just 25,000 people living in this camp and dying for the most ridiculous reasons that could be so easily sorted out – one little boy died because he got rice in his eye, scratched it and got an infection.
“When I turned up it was like a Biblical scene, like they thought they were going to get healed. It was really overwhelming. I have never cried taking pictures, apart from that day.
“I am taking a picture to tell their story – it’s my duty to get it published and if I don’t I feel like I’ve failed. I feel like I’ve let them down.”
He recounts with bitterness the story of the editor who asked him to reshoot a series of pictures of Angolan children blown up by land mines – with some pigs in.
“He had read somewhere pigs were used to sniff out land mines and said that people like pigs. Where do you start with that?”
Inspired by the American Government-funded pictures of The Great Depression and the J.P Morgan bankrolled study of Native Americans, Giles has set up Document, due to launch next year: “To get private investors to give money so stuff can be documented purely because it should be.”
For now there’s the KK Outlet show which includes not only an unbelievably powerful self-portrait of Giles sitting on a plinth, but also shots taken by David Bowering in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, which occurred while he was on patrol with US soldiers in Sangsar.
He admits it was a “really difficult decision” to include them, but in the end he was left with no choice.
“There’s a certain element that I did not want people to see me at that moment, like when you are a kid and you fall and cut your knee but you don’t want your mates to see you’re upset so you run round the corner and cry.
“Also it’s hard for my family and friends, but how could I not allow these to be published and then ever take another picture myself?
“My work is all about telling stories – communicating my feelings about war and in a way I see my body has become like installation art, a statement about what war does to people. I may as well use that as much as possible.
“The self portrait goes against my instincts – I spend most of my time wanting people not to see me in this way, but this is it. This is the reality. It was quite a cathartic moment.”
Giles has no doubts he wants to return to photography, to Afghanistan even, and hopes he can inspire others affected by the such life-changing incidents.
“It’s frustrating at the moment. I would much rather be out in the field than in a gallery,” he says.