Behind The Lens of Photographer Giles Duley And His Series, ‘I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See’

Behind The Lens of Photographer Giles Duley And His Series, ‘I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See’

Giles Duley is a remarkable person in many respects, but what really distinguishes him is the empathy and humanity he breathes into conflict reportage. His approach avoids the pitfalls of voyeurism, not only in connecting with the people behind his lens, but through the relationships he builds and the dialogue he creates beyond capturing a single moment in time. “I don’t want audiences feeling sorry for the people in my photographs”, he explains. “I want solidarity”.

Duley had a fruitful start to his career, photographing the likes of Oasis, the Prodigy, Underworld and Marilyn Manson. Yet he soon traded the world of Britpop hedonism for capturing humanitarian issues, working with a number of NGOs across some of the world’s most War-Torn countries.

In 2011, whilst documenting the medical treatment of injured civilians in Kabul, Duley suffered a tragic injury after stepping on a landmine, causing him to lose both his legs and his left arm. His stoicism during this time, and continues to be, utterly profound: recovering in his hospital bed, Duley was already making plans to return to Afghanistan to finish the work he’d begun.

Image by Giles Duley

His latest series of photos, entitled ‘I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See’, documents the refugee crisis across the Middle East and Europe. It embodies Duley’s distinct combination of technical virtuosity with his personal insight into suffering. Began in 2015, the project consists of 100 images, which capture the horror of boats arriving in Lesbos, along with stark white portraits of wounded civilians and more intimate shots of family life. Many are heartbreaking scenes, yet others are uplifting portrayals of community spirit, which dispel any notion of Duley’s subjects as downtrodden victims.

“Exhibitions spaces can be really dull, particularly when people just turn up and leave” Duley says. Recognising that these arresting photographs deserve more than silent observation, Duley had the ingenious idea to create a space which would facilitate the urge to discuss and take action. “This event is my paying back to the people who’ve trusted me with their stories”, he states.

The photographs were displayed as part of his show ‘Legacy of War’, which ran in October of this year at a space in the Truman Brewery. Duley hosted a dinner there each night on a huge wooden table which stretched across the centre of the exhibition room, with music, talks and poetry creating a wonderful atmosphere. “It’s been such a beautiful thing to watch every night”, he describes. “People have been chatting, telling stories, and discussing the issues, both crying and laughing. That was my dream.”

“It’s about people coming together to make this happen”, Duley explains. Rather than feeling frustrated or hopeless, the intent is to encourage people to use their skills to do what they can to help. It’s a collaborative project at heart, a “living exhibition”, which continues to grow with each voice that enters the space. Over the course of the show, there were three painters, a writer and musicians in residence, creating new work and performing on evenings. It served as a reminder that, as Duley states, “these stories haven’t finished. These people are still living these lives… It doesn’t end here, and we can’t lose hope”.  

It’s a testimony to the power of art borne from conflict to inspire positive action. Duley was reminded of this by one of the artists in residence, Lebanese painter Semaan Khawan, whose work courageously challenges official state censorship. “Whilst artists in the West might worry about reviews, or comments online, Syrian painters have been imprisoned for their artwork, tortured for it, even killed because of it. It’s incredibly humbling.”

Yet in spite of these vastly different circumstances, what Duley’s pictures seek to emphasise is a shared humanity. “I document love. A mother feeding her baby, couples holding hands”, he explains. “There are people all over the world doing the same thing. I want people to remember it’s not ‘us’ or ‘them’.”

This message of equality is the most important thing to take away from these photographs, and the reminder that people are not defined by their suffering.

Written by Daisy Schofield,


Photography by Giles Duley

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