100 Portraits Before I Die

Giles Duley on a morphine-addled new project to shoot the world and journey of a lifetime

Photography Q+A
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All this month, we're tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on dazeddigital.com/tripping. Right now, we're on the trail with photographer Giles Duley. Most well-known for his life-changing injuries after stepping on an IED in Kabul back in 2011, his journey as a photographer is nowhere near over. 

Having taught himself photography from his hospital bed at 18, following a car accident which cut short his football career, Giles started out as an editorial photographer in fashion and music back in 1994 but quickly became jaded with celebrity culture. Eventually packing in photography, he moved to the coast, ran across the Sahara and then became a care worker. It was while photographing those he worked with in care that he slipped back into photography with a humanitarian spin, rather than the celebrity-saturated world of fashion and music. Giles then travelled to areas of conflict to document the consequences on civilian life, but in 2011 his future as a photographer hung in the balance when he too became caught up in the effects of war, becoming a triple amputee.

Sat in a hospital bed once again, and out of his mind on morphine, Giles began to slip in and out of fantasies. While he had taught himself the ropes at 18, this time he was setting himself an even bigger challenge, which would defy those who predicted he would never live independently again, let alone return to photography. He created a wish list of portraits he had never been commissioned for, titled 100 Portraits Before I Die, each person has shaped Giles' life and cultural identity in some way. Documenting his journey, both pyhsically and mentally, on his blog, Giles gives us a uniquely personal insight into the trial and error of returning to portrait photography: 'Photographers can seem quite cool and separate but people like reading about the mistakes and the vulnerabilities because they don't get to see that side.'

Here, following our 2012 interview with him, Dazed speaks with Giles again about second chances, tripping on morphine and fighting his 'disabled' status.

I always said ‘If I make it I’m going to contact them all'

Gino Strada

Dazed Digital: How did the inspiration for 100 Portraits Before I die come about?

Giles Duley: The idea came when I was injured and in intensive care for about 46 days - I couldn’t speak because I’d had a Tracheotomy, the lights never went off and for that whole period they thought I was going to die. So to try and keep myself sane I created these little worlds in my head and one of the things I did was think about portraits. I started out as a portrait photographer, but by the time I was shooting for a lot of big fashion magazines I didn’t really like the people I was photographing, it became more about celebrity culture. Then lying there I kept thinking of all the people I wished I had photographed and why I had never called and asked them, so I made a list.

DD: What sort of people feature?

Giles Duley: It’s really eclectic - and bear in mind I was off my head on morphine too! I wouldn’t call them heroes but they shaped my cultural identity. I always said ‘If I make it I’m going to contact them all.’ All the people on the list are famous, but they're connected because they don’t do what they do to be famous. All these people would be doing their music or their acting if they had never made it, I think PJ Harvey would be playing down her local pub still, just jamming away. For me, when I was injured photography was what defined me and it's my lifeblood. I always thought if I could take photographs again it wouldn’t matter about my injuries, and I think all these people are the same - their artform is their lifeblood.

DD: How many have you done so far?

Giles Duley: So far I’ve shot Gino Strada and Ben Okri, so just in the very early stages. We’ve got 30 that have said yes - from Alan Rickman and Mike Leighto PJ Harvey. Next week I’m shooting Thomas Heatherwick, the designer who did the Olympic cauldron. There are also people like Tony Benn, the politician and the photographer Don McCullin. 

Ben Okri

DD: Tell me about the story behind wanting to photograph Ben Okri?

Giles Duley: When I was about 19 I was a skint, unemployed guy living pretty much in a squat in Bristol. One of my friends worked at an art centre and used to sneak me into all the films and talks. One night she said there was this writer coming to talk and that I should come down. I’d never heard of Ben Okri but he’d just won the booker prize for The Famished Road. I sat there listening to him reading extracts from the book and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. At the end I went up to say thanks and everyone was getting their copy signed but I was too broke so I didn’t have a book, he gave me his copy and wrote this introduction inside which I’ll always remember. He’s Nigerian and has a tradition of African story-telling and I think that really sparked something in my mind about travelling to Africa, all of these things come together to make who you are as an artist. By chance I met him at a literary festival recently and was able to tell him the story and he was almost in tears, he was really touched.

Gino Strada

DD: Tell us about Gino Strada’s portrait story?

Giles Duley: He’s a very enigmatic guy, Gino’s a Surgeon. I remember the first time I saw a picture of him I thought he was a film star, it was in Afghanistan and he was just out of surgery with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, kind-of windswept. He’s big in Italy, you can talk to almost anyone on the street there and they’ll know him, he’s very outspoken politically, a real cult figure. I’d come across him a few times through work but he always tried to get out of being photographed, the last time I was in Sudan he kept bailing and then he'd only turn up just as the lighting was getting too poor. When I got injured it became a bit of a joke that I had to lose my legs before he’d agree to have his portrait done. When he was last in London I arranged for him to do some talks and I had to do the schedule so I put some studio time in. That was a great example of a portrait being a gift to me, that was him finally saying ‘Yes, I’m happy for you to.’ 

DD: So with each portrait you’ll include the story behind choosing them?

Giles Duley: Yes, and I’m going to include their reaction to the project as well because it gets them, I guess all of us, to think about our mortality and the journeys we would have taken, what we wish we could do if we got a second chance at life. Because that’s how I see it, I really do have a second chance. 

My greatest desire by the end of this is just to be referred to as a photographer

Ben Okri

DD: Where will you photograph PJ Harvey?

Giles Duley: I’m actually shooting PJ Harvey down in Dorset because we grew up a village apart and we have a lot of mutual connections in the area. So we thought it would be cool to return there and do it in some of the lanes that we both knew as kids.

DD: How far afield will you travel to get the other portraits?

Giles Duley: Some will be in London, but I'm also going to America but then there’s an actress called Asia Argento in Italy, plus some French actors and actresses; Jean Paul Belmondo, and Marion Cotillard who recently played someone who lost their legs too.

DD: Are they any other amputees on the list?

Giles Duley: No, but when I was making the list I hadn’t really come to terms with losing my limbs and I suppose as well I don’t see that as the defining thing about me. When I did a talk recently, I asked the audience ‘When you look at these pictures do you ever think about the photographer?’ and they said ‘No.’ That’s so significant, I’m a triple amputee yet with pictures I can be on a level playing-field with anyone, so again part of this whole project is about reclaiming what I do. I find it really interesting that since my injuries, I get far less work than I did before. The only commissions I get are on disabilities.  So I think this whole project is about moving away from being seen that way. My greatest desire by the end of this is just to be referred to as a photographer.

DD: What’s the most trippy thing you’ve ever experienced photography-wise?

Giles Duley: Probably when I did acid at Glastonbury and photographed a tree repetitively. But actually, it’s probably this project. When I came up with the idea for 100 Portraits, I was on morphine constantly which was kind of like one massive trip. The connection between reality and fantasy became really confusing - I remember being convinced I was in a hospital in Italy during the Second World War with a lot of injured pilots. I was on such heavy doses to keep the pain out that I just went out of my mind, so a lot of the time I thought I’d actually taken these photos already. 

DD: Will you ever go back to humanitarian photography and travelling to war-torn areas?

Giles Duley: I’ll be returning for a few projects next year. It’s always been my main thing but I can never enjoy it and I feel so responsible because I’m capturing somebody suffering, if anything it keeps me up at night. It’s cool to do a project that’s extra fun, I think I needed that because I’ve spent the last few years not just seeing injuries but being injured myself and I’m actually quite exhausted from it all – 33 operations in 30 years, I just wanted a break from all that.

Keep a track on the project as it develops on Giles' blog.

Read last year's interview with Giles on his return to Afghanistan.

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