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Giles Duley: Becoming the Story

The British photographer speaks to Dazed about his new exhibition and life since becoming a triple amputee after his accident in Afghanistan earlier this year

During the 90s, Giles Duley was a fashion and music photographer taking pictures regularly for Vogue, GQ and Esquire. For the past decade however he’s been travelling to places like the Ukraine, South Sudan and Angola working on self-funded projects concerning real humanitarian issues. 

In February this year however, Duley was blown up by a landmine in Afghanistan and was left a triple amputee, losing both of his legs and his left arm. Undergoing a traumatic recovery where it was unclear whether he'd survive after contracting a lung infection too, he is now adjusting both physically and emotionally to his new life. Duley is not a victim though, and while he doesn’t consider himself brave, it’s clear that he won’t be defined by his injuries. Duley demonstrates an unwillingness to give up on what he believes people need to see and intends to finish what he started. After only 9 months of rehabilitation Duley is preparing to go back to Afghanistan and continue working on his project photographing injured civilians. Opening this week though is his exhibition at the KK Outlet Gallery, called 'Becoming The Story', it's his first step in disclosing his time there as well as showcasing other examples of his powerful and emotive work. 

Dazed Digital: How do you look back on your time as a fashion photographer? 
Giles Duley: I certainly don’t regret it. I was young and it gave me an opportunity to travel the world, meet some amazing people and it gave me the chance to experiment and develop my photographic skills. It was fun and I see nothing wrong with that, as long as that world doesn’t become your life.

DD: Your photography now captures humanitarian issues, what is it about this subject matter you prefer? 
Giles Duley: Photography is an incredible tool for communication, for telling stories. I loved the earlier part of my career, but in that period my work dealt purely with the surface. I always had a sense of the injustice in the world and it was important for me to use the art form I loved to somehow try and make a difference. My work now is about the stories of others, my photographs merely reflect those stories so others may hear them and hopefully be moved to do something. It’s rewarding to feel my work might in some small way make a difference.

DD: Do you ever find it difficult explaining what has happened to you? 
Giles Duley: It’s hard because naturally its something most people want to know about; the events of that day. Naturally it’s not something I want to relive, to dwell on. Yet I realise its important to tell that story. I think my experiences of seeing and documenting others has helped me. You have to put up some barriers from what you see or you’d be a mess all the time; I’ve done that with this experience. 

DD: What’s been most important to you while recovering?
Giles Duley: 
Throughout my recovery I’ve had one goal; to return to my life as it was when I got injured. Three things have always been on my mind; to walk through Soho with my girlfriend Jen, to sit with friends in my favourite pub, the Hastings Arms and to carry on my work in Afghanistan. When those three goals are achieved I’ll feel like I have my life back.

DD: What changes will you have to make now when you’re taking photographs?
Giles Duley: 
It’s going to be hard at first taking photos. On a practical note I know only have one hand; so holding the camera will be difficult. We’re working on a device that will fix a camera directly to my stump- kind of making me part camera!

It’s also the mobility that will be difficult. No matter how good I get on my new legs, I’ll never have the mobility I once had and as a photographer that’s going to be a struggle. But I’ll find away, there’s always an answer.

DD: What was it like working in Afghanistan? How does it compare to other locations you’ve shot in?
Giles Duley: 
Afghanistan was frustrating for me. I’m used to working alone and without restrictions, to come and go as I please. The nature of the war and being embedded means you can’t just go wandering around. I felt disconnected from the local population and that was difficult for me.

DD: What’s your motivation to return to Afghanistan? Are you worried at all about how you’ll feel when you get there?
Giles Duley: 
Anyone that knows me, knows I’m not a brave man. I certainly know going back to Afghanistan won’t be easy, but its something I have to do. My duty still lies in documenting others’ stories, I’m nowhere ready to give up on that work. My sense of injustice in the world, and my desire to carry on photographing that overrides my fear.

DD: For the exhibition, you’ve taken two self-portraits since your injuries, was this a form of catharsis for you?
Giles Duley: 
Doing the self-portrait last week was an important moment for me. It was empowering to photograph my injuries and portray them as I see them. To be a photographer again. Its important that people see me for what I am.

DD: You’ve won several awards for your photographs. How do you feel when you are rewarded for your work?
Giles Duley: 
One of the hardest things with this whole experience is that my story has in some ways become bigger than my photography. Awards put attention on you and that can be awkward, especially if it’s an image of someone suffering. How can you feel good getting praise for that? However you also learn that the attention can also help raise interest in the subject, if that happens, it’s worth it.

'Becoming The Story' is open from today (November 4th), at KK Outlet Gallery, 42 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB