A decade into a successful career in music and fashion, Photographer Giles Duley had a nagging feeling that something was missing. He was searching for a way to make his images more meaningful. It was during a career break, working as a care worker that he realised that so many important stories were not being told. These encounters reshaped his vision of the world and documentary photography in conflict zones became his focus.
In 2011 Duley was on patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on an I.E.D and became part of the story himself. At first, he was devastated, left as a triple amputee; he thought he would never work again. A combination of grit and stubbornness got him through his recovery and back into the field. Inspired by the resilience of the people he had documented across the world, Duley realised he had become a living example of what war can do, and he could harness personal experience to tell that story.
Firstly, I’d love to understand a little more about your creative process. Do you research the places you go to or is it more about following your instincts when you’re on the ground?
It’s a combination. If I take it a step back, when I started as an editorial photographer shooting bands I used to overly prepare in my head. I would begin to visualise the shoot, and then you would get there, and the situation would change. What I’ve learnt is that you need to think on your feet; expectation leads to disappointment. I was pleased to discover this in my early days.
Research for me is about understanding the story and visual landscape of a place. I make time to explore the stories and images already captured of a place and in some ways that teaches me clichés to avoid. Once I’m in the field, I try and keep an open mind about what the imagery might be.
After a successful career in music, you switched to documentary, focusing on working in conflict zones. Your first trip was to Angola, was that a commission?
No, absolutely not. I had a background as a photographer but not in documentary work, and that was the challenge. I’m a big believer that you have to create your own opportunities as there’ll never be a job advertised saying, ”We need a photographer.” So I self-funded the trip.
I chose Angola was a couple of reasons. One, it was in post-conflict, so I felt like I wasn’t going to out of my depth in terms of risks. It also meant that no other people were covering the story because it wasn’t dramatic, it wasn’t in the news anymore.
One of my oldest friends was living there, so I also knew I had a place to stay. He worked for the UN, so was able to introduce me to charities so I could start a conversation with them. I would offer to document their projects if they could facilitate my visits, and then shoot my personal work on the side.
How did that first step into the unknown feel?
The biggest challenge for me was going from shooting portraits to telling stories. When I look back, I learnt so much from those early pictures. One of my earliest documentary photographs taken in Angola was of a group of women, left as widows from the war. They were hiding in these unfinished buildings, and the scenario felt like such a classic documentary image, very serious and sombre.
When I first turned up, the women ran off when they saw me. They were scared of government forces and didn’t know who I was. Every day I would go back, and hang out there until they got used to me. Eventually, I shot this beautiful photograph of them cooking surrounded by smoke. But the picture was me taking a photograph that I thought I was supposed to take.
In reality, as the women got used to me, they started playing a game where they would sneak up behind me and try and pinch my bum. These women were in their 60s and 70s and would just burst into laughter. Now when I look at the image, I wish I’d shot them all laughing.
When did you know you were on the right path?
One of the big decisions I made when I moved to documentary work was not to have to deal with editors anymore. I was sick of doing shoots where I’d have an idea, but the editor, art director or picture editor would say “No we want it done this way.” With the documentary work, I wanted to be fully in control. So I decided I wouldn’t take commissions, but I’d find ways to fund the work myself. In the beginning, I worked as a care worker to support my photography. I would work solidly for four weeks and then use the money I made to fund my next project.
In 2009 I was doing a project about children living on the street in the Ukraine. I’d seen photographs of these street kids doing drugs and living in sewers; it was really horrific. I remember thinking, what’s the other side of the story, who are these kids?
I went there and got to know one particular group and ended up living in their squat, spending months hanging out with them. It was the first time I allowed myself to become embedded. I wanted to understand their story beyond drugs. I saw them laughing, joking, hugging and brushing each other’s hair. All those little intimacies and I realised that’s where the really beautiful story was. These kids were so vulnerable, and everyone was portraying them as violent, drug taking and lost.
I took a photograph of one of these girls sweeping up the squat where they lived in, and for me, I think it’s one of the most upsetting photographs I’ve ever taken. People don’t read it as dramatic, but it was precisely that lack of drama that moved me. These kids believed they branded as worthless and trouble, and to see a young teenage girl try and brush up a crumbling building to make it more like a home you realised how sensitive they were.
That sounds like a critical turning point in terms of how you saw your authorship in documentary?
That was a huge turning point for me where I realised I didn’t have to photograph the dramatic, that my work was more about the spaces in-between. The smaller moments are so revealing.
If you put me in a mud hut in South Sudan, a tent in Jordan or a flat in Brixton, within those walls, I see the same thing. The truth is people act the same way despite their location; it’s really important to show those little intimacies, as they reflect our humanity.
In February 2011 you stepped on an I.E.D while on patrol in Afghanistan and became part of the story. What was the aftermath of this life-changing experience?
The hardest thing to deal with was prejudice. I stopped getting work as people didn’t believe I could shoot anymore. Nobody gave me a break; nobody took it easy on me. Everybody just shunned me. I lost my home, my partner and my family kept saying, “Why don’t you get another job? Why don’t you give up photography and think about what else you can do?” And I just couldn’t; it was who I am.
This work is a lot of hard graft, and you have to keep fighting and believing in yourself. Nobody will give you a break you have to earn it.
You have been very candid about the challenges you have faced, your mental health and vulnerability throughout your career. What motivated you to share these experiences?
A lot of it does come from the simple realisation that I share other people’s stories and dark moments, and so how could I do that if I wasn’t prepared to share my own. It just seemed hypocritical.
Even the fact that I was photographed moments after I was injured and those pictures appeared in the New York Times. My brother approved it, as I was unconscious. His thought was “Well, he’s photographed other people like that. I think it’s only fair that pictures of him are published.” And he was right.
I have also discovered that I get better photographs if I’m prepared to show my own vulnerability to the people I’m photographing. You’re often in quite stressful and complicated situations and sharing your challenges can be very powerful. Even before I got injured, I realised being vulnerable makes people feel more comfortable.
You spent a whole year documenting the refugee crisis, what was your experience like?
The majority of my work has been documenting lesser-known stories, so it was weird to be thrust into such a mainstream news story. At first, I really questioned whether it was the right thing for me to do. But again I felt that if you do any project, you have to consider if you can be of any help. You can’t just photograph people suffering just because you’re getting paid to do it. For me, it has to have a purpose.
I wanted to bring something new to the table; the crisis was being documented non-stop. I started looking at what was happening to the families that were still in Iraq, Lebanon or Jordan. While there were vast numbers of people crossing, there were still a million refugees left behind, so that became my focus.
You went onto use the images as part of a collaboration with Massive Attack. How did this project come about?
I’ve realised over time that taking images is only half my job; the other half is making sure those stories are heard. Otherwise, there is no point. It’s important to me to get these images in front of people who wouldn’t ordinarily see them. This ranges from talks in schools to exhibitions in parliament. The Massive Attack collaboration was an extension of this thinking. The images were integrated into their tour visuals, and we also created a free newspaper given to everyone as they left the gig.
I’m continually looking for new ways to engage with audiences outside of the traditional media system. I think collaborative work is critical to reaching new audiences.
You also approach exhibiting your work in exciting new formats. What was the catalyst for this?
A few years ago, I had an exhibition in a traditional gallery, and it was so sterile and just full of people who just wanted a free drink and a chat. They didn’t even look at the stories. This really upset me as some of the people in the images have been through terrible things, some have died, and it just didn’t feel right.
When I got the chance to exhibit at London’s Truman Brewery in 2017, I instinctively knew I didn’t want to have one of those chapel experiences where everyone walks around whispering. I wanted to start conversations. I decided to have a table in the middle of the exhibition that sat 100 people. In the day people could sit and chat and then every evening we hosted a dinner cooked by a Syrian couple accompanied by music played by a friend of mine Allah, a violinist from Syria. It was a living experience and a real conversation starter.
It made me rethink how I engage with people and who sees photography. I’m entrusted with these stories, and if I don’t get them out there in a meaningful way, I haven’t really done my job.
How has your relationship to the camera changed through your career?
In the beginning, the camera was everything; it gave me an identity. Now, as a documentary photographer, it’s a tool for change.
You often talk about your stubbornness being a big driver for decisions you have made throughout your life. Can you talk about this a little?
The stubbornness is a punk attitude, fighting the system all the time. After my recovery, I went through a dark time, it wasn’t just my injuries, but I lost everything through that process. I had some of my lowest points, but I remember thinking why am I waiting for someone else to give me an opportunity? I decided to fund my own trips and get on with my work. The stubbornness has seen me through. I just had the belief that the only thing I could do was to take control and keep moving forward. Life hasn’t been straightforward; there are always elements of sacrifice and struggle to get where you’re going.
I’ve always said my disability is only in the eyes of others; I don’t see it. I travel the world; I do my work. I cook, I look after myself. So I’m not quite sure what that disability is. I mean I’m not such a good dancer now, but that’s about it, and I was pretty rubbish before.