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Features / Photography

The legacy of war: Giles Duley photographs the lives and the horrors of conflict

Photography:

Giles Duley

For the past decade Giles Duley has been photographing the impact of war on civilians, and since starting the project Legacy of War, which is in part a collaboration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, he has worked in Lebanon, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland and Gaza; and most recently in Jordan, Greece, Macedonia, Germany and Finland. “Wars don’t end when a treaty is signed, for the people affected the legacy continues” Giles says. “Whether that be through contamination of land mines, lasting physical injuries, the psychological damage; or in the case of refugees, the loss of homes, livelihoods and culture, war leaves a legacy decades after the last shot was fired.”

Ironically, after years of planning and having secured funding, Legacy of War had to be put on hold when Giles was injured in Afghanistan. The accident left him a triple amputee and doubtful that he’d be able to continue with the project. Four years later, the project is well under way and coming at a time when the impact of war is in acute visibility. He hopes to shift the way that war is talked about: “The figures are staggering and hard to comprehend, likewise the scenes of boats and crowds of refugees at borders can be overwhelming. Of course that side has to be shown, we have to understand the scale of this crisis, but we must also humanise.”

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War

Giles describes the lasting impression on visiting different countries as being one of commonality; that a land mine survivor in Angola will speak of their experience in the same terms as a survivor in Cambodia, highlighting the importance of “focussing on the themes that are universal”. Giles records the everyday moments known by us all such as “cooking, a mother brushing her child’s hair, a father holding his daughter’s hand.” He says: “In situations that we find hard to comprehend, these simple moments can help us relate.”

“It’s really hard to explain or comprehend what I saw there. The phrase I heard time after time was ‘We saw death with our own eyes’ – and you could see that, the shock of that journey.”

Giles Duley

Legacy of War began with Giles travelling to Lesvos, where he witnessed boat after boat of traumatised refugees and migrants reaching the Greek island’s beaches. In his first week over 40,000 people arrived, “It’s really hard to explain or comprehend what I saw there,” he says, “The phrase I heard time after time was ‘Shefna el mot bi oyouna’ – ‘We saw death with our own eyes’ – and you could see that, the shock of that journey.”

As well as his photographs, Giles is keeping a diary of his experiences which he publishes on the Legacy of War site. Unlike much of the reporting on events in Lesvos, and more broadly, Giles’ writing isn’t focussed on abstract facts and statistics but on the lives of those he is meeting. One story in particular is that of Ammar and Wafaa, a couple from Hama, Syria on the frontline of the civil war. Giles writes: “The war had put an end to their studies, [in economics and marketing respectively] it had put an end to normal life. Ammar attempted to open a small grocery store, Wafaa volunteered with a local charity helping the many displaced Syrians within the country. They had wanted to stay, but the situation was growing worse by the day.”

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War

Ammar and Wafaa left first via a mini bus to Beirut from where they flew to Turkey. “From this point their lives were in the hands of the smugglers,” Giles described. “‘The smugglers treated us like animals,’ Wafaa recalled, ‘They referred to people as goods. They beat people and forced them onto overcrowded boats. They forced people to blow up the boats and push them out to sea. It was like slavery and you could not say or do anything.’ On arriving Wafaa and Ammar’s boat was greeted by a team of volunteers… There [were] screams, tears; the panic and shock in the faces of those arriving [was] palpable. Many collapse, babies blue from hypothermia, others in shock.”

“The war had put an end to their studies, it had put an end to normal life.”

Giles Duley

Giles goes on to tell of what happened for Wafaa and Ammar after they landed, in a moment of respite and hope a room was found for the couple and the next morning they continued their journey – their goal being Germany. They have since arrived safely, and described their hope that in the future their children will grow up in a safe place, “with no violence. We don’t want them to grow up with the smell of blood in the air,” explained Ammar.

In Legacy of War, Giles has established a much-needed platform for understanding the ongoing refugee crisis in terms of the lives of individuals, what they are fleeing and why. The sense of scale is very much there, but from the perspective of lived experience rather than via statistics or newspaper chatter. Giles says: “I know my work won’t change the world, but I hope I can at least act as a witness and share the stories of those I meet – at a time when there is a lot of fear, misunderstanding and misinformation; empathy has never felt more vital.”

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War

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Giles Duley/UNHCR: The Legacy of War