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War Torn

22/10/2013 Giles Duley, a documentary photographer devastatingly injured while working in Afghanistan, tells shootLDN: ‘My friends love the idea of me being half man, half camera.’

Giles Duley calls this self-portrait: ‘Broken Statue’. It was the first photograph he took – nine months to the day after losing three limbs (and very nearly his life) after treading on an IED (improvised explosive device) buried beneath a road in Afghanistan in February 2011.

The blast also left him with shrapnel embedded in his left hand, arm and torso. He was rushed back to The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham where his lungs and liver also began to fail. Twice his family were called in to say goodbye to him as doctors fought 24/7 to save his life.

After more than thirty operations (so many that Giles has pretty much lost count) he’s back: “I was told I would never walk again or live independently - and that was the moment I knew I would become a photographer again. I had to learn to balance my camera on my arm. When you lose your limbs, and in my case also part of an inner ear – you can only balance using your eyes. The problem was I would tend to keel over when trying to use the viewfinder. So I learned to take pictures quickly – and now my friends love the idea of me being half man, half camera”, he jokes.

The ‘Broken Statue’ image - evoking memories of Greek and Roman statues Giles had seen as a child, was the result of an idea he had kept in his head for months in intensive care. He tells Hasselblad News: “I wanted to take a portrait that didn't hide the reality of my injuries, but also didn't show me as a victim. I realized I wanted to photograph myself the way I had photographed others – and when I took this self-portrait I felt as if I had crossed a threshold of accepting my injuries. This is me, and once again I am a photographer.”


Giles decided to return to Afghanistan. “Everyone told me I was crazy” he smiles. “But for me it wasn’t about going back to Afghanistan, it was about going back to what I love doing - what I feel privileged to do. I wanted to document a story about civilian casualties of war.

“And it can be extremely distressing. I took a picture of a little boy who had also stepped on a landmine and it struck me that all the things I had gone through as a forty year old man and the pain I am still in, plus all the psychological difficulties I endured, are one thing. But why should a seven year old boy have to go through that just because he was walking to school?”

Giles – originally inspired by iconic war photographer Don McCullin, has covered conflict, terror and poverty in many countries. But he doesn’t conform to any photo-norm when choosing his work. In an earlier photographic incarnation he was a fashion photographer working for major magazines like GQ and Esquire. But when he ended up being repeatedly briefed to shoot so-called ‘celebrities’ from the TV show Big Brother, instead of focusing on portraits of real stars like Robert DeNiro, he gave it up.

He admits: “It came to a head when some contestant who had just written her first book was complaining about being photographed. I lost it completely. The story did the rounds that I threw my cameras out of the hotel window but the truth is I threw them onto the bed in utter frustration and they bounced off and out of the window.”

Giles started doing care work and was looking after Nick – a young man with severe Autism.

“We became friends and he trusted me,” he recalls. “I decided to photograph him to show people what his life was really like. Amazingly, when people in authority saw the pictures I’d taken, his care package suddenly changed and people actually wanted to help. Photography had given voice to someone who couldn’t express himself. Nick’s story was expressed through my photographs.”


He adds “I became fascinated by other people’s stories and I knew I could use my photography to go out and document their lives.”

Giles insists that one of the most important skills to be learned as a documentary photographer is the art of becoming the most boring person in the room. He says: “You need to be a person nobody notices. I became very good at being boring. Take me anywhere and I vow to be the dullest person there.”

He spent nine years photographing in places like Angola, Sudan and Bangladesh – trying to get to places where there were serious stories that weren’t being written about. “If I arrive somewhere and spot another photographer something inside me insists I’ve come to the wrong place and I head off somewhere else”, he says.

Giles preaches his own gospel on photography: “I don’t care for the expression ‘to take a photograph’. I believe a really good photograph is one that is given – especially when it comes to portraits. Photographers need to take pictures that they feel inside just have to be taken. It doesn’t matter what other people say. If it is important to you just do it.”

He adds: “People ask: ‘But was it worth losing your legs and an arm for a photograph?’ Well of course not but I do believe in the principle of what I do. I am not a victim, I just got injured doing what I love doing.”

Now, armed with a Hasselblad H5D Giles begins his latest project – shooting portraits of 100 people he has always wanted to photograph. Pictures, he says, of people who have become famous for what they do, not just because they wanted to be famous. “I believe it is vital to do things that are important to you…not to do things that someone else wants you to do.”