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Giles Duley, documentary photographer and writer, with his work at Xposure 2021, at Sharjah Expo Centre, on Wednesday. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: Giles Duley, famous for his pictures of war, doesn’t see himself as a war photographer. He sees himself as a storyteller of love.

Duley, who was left a triple amputee after a blast in Afghanistan in 2011, has a solo exhibition at Xposure International Photography Festival at Expo Centre Sharjah, running from Wednesday to Saturday. None of his pictures at Xposure show explosions or war machines. Instead, they show portraits of people — some obvious war victims, while others are unremarkable at first glance.

‘What I photograph is love’

“What I find in all the places where I work, is that actually I focus on love. People call me a war photographer, but you will never see a photograph of a gun, a tank, a plane or an explosion. What you will see is a mother with her baby, a grandmother brushing her granddaughter’s hair, a couple holding hands. So actually, what I photograph is love,” Duley, who is from the United Kingdom, told Gulf News.

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Giles Duley is a triple amputee after a blast in Afghanistan in 2011. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

His ‘Legacy of War’ portraits at Xposure — all black and white and all against a white background — seem like they were all taken at the same time and at the same place. They weren’t, of course. In 2019 alone, Duley visited 19 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Cambodia and Laos. He said the portraits are not about sufferings, not in the ultimate sense.

‘In that hell, I find hope’

“Even in the portraits, where it’s just them and me, I hope you can see in their eyes something stronger, something that gives all of us hope, and that hope springs s from resilience. These people have all been through terrible experiences, but they’ve come out of it and they’re survivors. That’s how I manage to keep doing what I do. Yes, I see hell on earth, but in that hell, I find hope,” Duley, 49, added.

Duley concedes that his work, which takes him to conflict zones around the world, does impact him on a personal level, psychologically and emotionally. “It would be a lie to say it doesn’t affect me. I actually don’t take many photographs. I spend a lot of time with communities and families. But I would say each photograph is like a little scar on my mind. And they haunt you. But also what I would say is, everything in life is balanced. And you cannot have sunshine without a storm.”

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Duley underwent 37 operations and was told he would never walk again, never work again. Yet, exactly 18 months since he got injured, Duley was back — working in Afghanistan. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Leaving hospital ‘a better man’

Duley has faced his own storms. Speaking about the Afghanistan incident, because of which he lost his legs and his left arm, Duley said: “I would say it was the worst day in office that you could imagine. I was working, got injured [in a land mine blast], lost my legs, lost my arm. But it gave me a gift as well, I spent one year in hospital, and I left as a stronger man, a better man.”

Duley underwent 37 operations and was told he would never walk again, never work again. Exactly 18 months since he got injured, Duley was back — working in Afghanistan because “I hadn’t finished the story there”, he added.

He has just flown in to Dubai from Congo and continues to raise awareness about people in hardship worldwide. “For me, the duty now is even stronger than ever because I wake up each day in pain, physically and mentally. If I think one of my photographs means that one child, one woman doesn’t have to go through what I go through, then that drives me to work every day.”

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Can a picture change the world?

Duley also has his own charity, Legacy of War Foundation. “All the people in these photographs, I can tell you directly what’s happened to them and how we support them now. Somebody came to an exhibition like this once and said: ‘Do you think you can change the world with a photograph?’ I said ‘no’. But I do think I can inspire the person who can.”