Giles Duley to Xposure 2021: As photographers we have a gift of telling stories

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Xposure International Photography Festival concludes in Sharjah with a moving account of one man’s journey to document love and laughter in conflict zones

“Photography is our truth; it is our lifeblood,” said Giles Duley, winner of the prestigious Amnesty Media Award for Journalism, at the concluding seminar of the fifth edition of the Xposure International Photography Festival yesterday at Expo Centre Sharjah.

“As photographers, we have a gift of telling stories, and I have been inspired by the many stories shared by world-class photographers here at Xposure,” said Duley, founder of the Legacy of War Foundation, at the session titled ‘The Power of a Story’.

A campaigner for the rights of both refugees and those living with disability caused by conflict, Giles Duley – who lost three limbs following injuries caused by an IED in Afghanistan in 2011, recollects how even as he was wheeled in for the first of his 37 operations in the UK – in a critical and unconscious state with minimal chances of survival, the words he whispered to his family were: “I am still a photographer.”

His story as a photographer, he told the Xposure 2021 audience, began at the age of 18 when an accident abruptly ended what he thought would have been a promising career in sports which, until then, “had been my life”. While recuperating in hospital, Duley received “two small gifts from my godfather that were to change my life – an Olympus camera and a copy of photojournalist Don McCullin’s autobiography illustrated with his acclaimed black-and-white images of war and human suffering.

“I knew then and there that I wanted to follow in his footsteps; I wanted to be a war photographer,” reminisced Duley.

However, for the next 10 years, his career trajectory took him on the path of celebrity photography. Disillusioned with it, and moving away to a remote fishing village, it was the memory of the two gifts that made him return to the path he had once dreamt of.

“I started out as an anti-war photographer,” he says, “as 90 per cent of those impacted by wars today are civilians, and I wanted to tell the stories of individuals caught up in war.”

Although the suffering, pain, and death he witnessed during these travels tugged at his conscience of having to point his camera at those in trauma, it was the understanding that “each of us have the power to create change” that made him persevere, he said.

The 2011 injury in Afghanistan was undeniably life-changing and during the first 46 days when he was in “the ultimate lockdown, unable to move my only intact limb”, what got him through was a project he conceived in his mind of the 100 people he would like to photograph. “Everything changed in those 46 days; I became a better photographer. I believe that if your imagination is still free, you can always grow and expand.”

 Duley, who went back to Afghanistan 18 months after his accident, narrated several stories of men, women, and children he has since documented following the return to a full-time career. “By sharing their stories of resilience, love, and laughter – they are the ones who ultimately gave me my life back.”


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