In October 2015, photographer Giles Duley was commissioned by the UNHCR to document the refugee crisis.
Over seven months, he visited 14 countries in the Middle East and Europe, from the refugee camps of Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to the beaches of Greece, to tell the stories of the individuals and families forced to flee their homes. The photographs from that assignment are collected in a new book. Excerpts:
One million refugees attempted to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2015. How do you begin to go about documenting a story of such magnitude?
The UNHCR gave me the greatest brief ever given to a photographer — just follow your heart. So, rather than try to cover the whole crisis, I tried to cover a few stories within it and that was how I kept my focus. There is no such thing as truth in photography, which is why the book has the title I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See. As soon as I go to one beach and choose one person to photograph, I’ve made a decision and I’ve ruled out thousands of other stories. Politicians and the media often try to simplify the narrative, but the fact is, if you have a million people crossing into Europe, you have a million different stories.
You were on Lesbos in the autumn of 2015 when up to 5,000 people a day were landing on the beaches. What was it like?
I’ve worked in Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq and have seen some of the worst of humanity, and yet I found myself standing on those beaches in floods of tears. It was hard initially to work out what was different. What was it I was seeing that I hadn’t seen before? I’ve seen a lot of refugee camps, but they are generally static places. What I’ve never seen is people moving en masse like that, putting their lives on the line, risking everything for freedom, for safety. To see the fear on their faces, but also the relief that they’d finally made it, was completely overwhelming.
How difficult is it to be behind a camera watching scenes like that unfold?
I didn’t meet one photographer or journalist who hadn’t got involved at some stage, jumping in the water, grabbing people off the boats. I was handing out foil blankets. That was the shocking thing: we were in Europe, people were landing every day, so it wasn’t a surprise, and yet there were no ambulances or medical teams on that beach. On more than one occasion we had to put hypothermic babies in our car and just turn up the heating.
The photographs you took in Greece are shot in black and white, giving them a timeless feel. Was that deliberate?
Very much so. I’ve gone back to shooting on film, and with this book I wanted to create a document, a record of what happened, because this is unprecedented. [Shooting on] film meant this could be from any era, from the Second World War onwards and maybe that helps in a way to question those preconceptions of “us” and “them”. Why would you think it was right to help people fleeing during the second world war and then question whether we should be helping people fleeing conflict now?
Some of the most memorable images are the portraits of individuals against a white backdrop, devoid of context. Why photograph them in that way?
As soon as you photograph somebody standing in a refugee camp, you see them as a refugee. By putting them against a white sheet, it gives you the opportunity to look at them as people. It’s a very naked thing, and quite confrontational in a way; you’re staring at them and they’re staring back at you. I love my white sheet; it’s the best-travelled white sheet in the world.
Were they willing subjects?
There’s a portrait in that series of a woman called Shamah, a lady in her 90s from Homs, who has a tattooed face. When I turned up at her settlement in Jordan she was shaking her finger at me basically saying: “We don’t want a photographer here, we want help.”
At moments like that you feel stupid. I’m just there with my camera and these people are starving and they need medical support and I have nothing. But I spent the next couple of days getting to know the families. And on about the fourth day I went back and I asked some of the people in the community if they would help me put my white sheet up. I turned away to load up my camera and when I turned back, Shamah was standing there in front of the sheet. The best photographs are never taken, they’re given.
What struck me in some of your images was the sense of everyday family life persisting in the refugee camps, despite the often dire conditions…
When I go into these camps I don’t see people shouting or throwing bricks, although that’s the image sometimes portrayed in the media. Most families just want to create some kind of normality for their children. You see laughter, you see love, you see kids playing, people cooking, and it’s so important that photographers reflect that because those are the moments that we can all relate to.
There’s a photograph I love of three women having a cigarette in Jordan. My translator had said it would be hard to get women’s portraits because they’re religious. But on the third or fourth day, they asked if they could nick a cigarette off me. They didn’t want their husbands to know, so we all sneaked round the back of the building to have a naughty cigarette and they were laughing and it was one of those moments of intimacy that are so precious.
I found the images of Khouloud, the mother who was confined to her bed in a tent in Lebanon for two years after being paralysed by a sniper’s bullet, particularly moving.
When I got this brief to “follow your heart” I knew I’d have to go back and see some of the families I’d documented two years earlier in Lebanon. When I got injured [Duley stepped on an IED while working in Afghanistan in 2011, losing both legs and his left arm], one of the hardest times for me was not the injury, not the rehab, but the two years after that, when I got no work, I’d lost my home and I lived in this tiny bedsit. The phone never rang, nobody wanted to commission me and it was really heartbreaking. Then in 2014 the charity Handicap International said that they would take me to Lebanon to meet and document some of these refugee families. The thing that really moved me was those families completely trusted me to tell their stories. Khouloud’s family in particular took me in and trusted me to do my job and that was the moment that I got my life back.
I felt this huge debt to them, so when I went back two years later and found Khouloud in exactly the same situation as before, I felt I had failed them. Khouloud’s story resonated with me because she was trapped in her bed and she couldn’t move and I’d spent a year myself in a hospital bed and I know how it feels to be trapped by your own body. I had this feeling that if I could somehow help to set her free I would have done one good thing in my life.
I met one of the organisers of an American charity, Random Acts, and he was so moved by Khouloud’s story he set up a crowdfunding campaign and we used my photographs and within the space of a few weeks we had raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
In the foreword to your book, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, wrote that “providing protection to people seeking refuge is a critical aspect of the identity of postwar Europe and of its foundational values”. Have those values been found wanting?
People have started to realise that maybe governments are not going to step in and do the things we expect them to do. One of the most encouraging things I’ve seen in the past couple of years is the number of volunteers — people who had no background in humanitarian work — saying “I want to do something about this”.
There’s a photograph I took of two Greek ladies walking along the seafront in Lesbos. Every day they would walk along the beach to hug the children arriving on the boats. When I asked them why, they explained to me that their mothers had been refugees from Turkey and had landed on those same beaches as children. They said, “Whenever we see those children, we see our mothers.”
This is part of a bigger project, Legacy of War. What’s the story behind that?
I’m not a war photographer, I’ve got no interest in photographing people firing guns. My interest has always been in what happens to civilians caught up in conflict and the longer-term legacy, whether it’s psychological or physical injuries or the contamination of landmines. And no matter where these people are — Colombia, Angola, Cambodia – they say exactly the same things. The themes are universal.
At school you learn the dates of wars, the names of generals, the number of casualties, but nobody talks about the consequences. So as well as using photographs I wanted to work with poets and musicians and to go into schools and to raise awareness and maybe, by just one degree, to change the way we speak about conflict.
I worked with Massive Attack last year — they showed my photographs on stage on tour — and I’ve just done a collaboration with PJ Harvey. She’s written a song called The Camp with Egyptian musician
Ramy Essam and the video is all the photographs from the first section of the book, shown in an incredibly cinematic and emotive way.
You were already documenting humanitarian stories before you got injured. Can you see a difference in your work before and after the accident?
I don’t really talk about how hard it is for me to work as a photographer. You really feel it in a place like Lesbos, where photographers are running around, kneeling down, standing on things. I can’t do any of that. I am working with this incredibly limited palette, and sometimes that really gets me down because I see images I can’t take — I can’t get there in time, I can’t kneel down, I can’t get the angle — and it breaks my heart. I’ve had to say to myself, don’t think about what you can’t do, focus on what you can and excel at that. So I spend less time thinking about the clever image, the interesting aesthetics, and more about how I connect with somebody. I have a lot more empathy with the people I photograph now and that is reflected in the work.
The work must take its toll. How do you keep going?
Every day I’m in physical pain. Every day I struggle emotionally with what happened to me. But I know that there are people around the world who are experiencing that for the first time on that day. Maybe I feel some kind of solidarity with them but I also feel that there’s nobody better equipped to be telling their stories than I am.
I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing it; my body is almost at breaking point. I walk on two prosthetic legs and have one arm and I end up exhausted and bruised, with my legs full of blood every day. But I feel this is what I was made to do.
For a lot of my life I was looking for a sense of purpose. I had success as a music and fashion photographer but there was an emptiness in that. I suffered from depression in my late 20s and early 30s and, having found what I do now, that’s gone. I can have a direct and positive impact on somebody else’s life and that’s incredibly powerful.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See: Photographs From the Refugee Crisis by Giles Duley was published by Saqui Books on June 12,