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Giles Duley's Photographs Tell Stories of Refugees

Alex Chams By Alex Chams Published on 16 Jun 16:56

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In October 2015, Giles Duley was commissioned by the UNHCR to document the refugee crisis. Over the next seven months, he criss-crossed Europe and the Middle East in an attempt to put a human face to one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time. His brief was simple: to follow his heart. Duley visited fourteen countries to tell the stories of individuals and families forced to flee their homes. He chronicled the turmoil in Lebanon, refugee camps in Iraq and Jordan, desperate scenes on the beaches of Lesvos and the refugees’ arrival in Germany. London-based Saqi Books has just published I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See, which brings together over 150 original photographs  from Duley's coverage, which capture tragedy and harrowing situations with empathy and humanity. Saqi Books' publisher, Lynn Gaspard, answered questions for Bookwitty about how the book was conceived.

How did you make contact with Giles Duley? How did the book come about?

I first came across Giles’s work after reading an article he wrote for the The Observer, where he shared beautiful and very moving portraits and stories of handicapped children he met in Gaza.

I began to research Giles’s journey as a photographer. I learned that after ten years as a sought-after music and fashion photographer photographing the likes of Kings of Leon, Oasis, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Christian Bale, he turned to humanitarian photography and ended up embedded with the US army in Afghanistan. This is where his tragic accident took place in 2011.

Writing to Giles was a no brainer. He almost immediately replied, saying that he’d just had a meeting with the UNHCR who commissioned him to take photographs of refugees (the outcome of which is this book). We arranged to meet a few days later and the rest is history.

Giles Duley talks about the importance of storytelling. What is unique, for you, in his photography?

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Khouloud and her husband Jamal in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

Giles’s approach to photography is rare. The photographs he takes are not about capturing a moment in time, but, as you say, telling a story. This is particularly apparent in I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See, where Giles has followed the fate of some of the refugees he has photographed over a number of years – such as Aya and Khouloud. When Giles returns to visit the people he takes portraits of, he takes them their photograph as a gift. This speaks volumes to me about Giles’s attitude to photography. The photographs in this book are not about work for a commission or self-gratification, they are primarily for the people whose stories they tell.

The empathy that Giles has for those he photographs is what gives him the ability to tell their personal story. For me, what I found remarkable about Giles was that despite his injuries, and after spending a year in hospital, his priority was to return to photography, to capture and share the stories of those who the mainstream media ignore or reduce to victims.

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What do you all hope to achieve with this book?

All profits for this book go the UNHCR, so of course we hope to raise awareness – and some money! – of/for them and their hugely important work worldwide. In the mainstream media there remains a disgraceful predilection to portray victims of the refugee crisis as other, to dehumanise them and their condition. We hope that in publishing I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See we are doing our part to readdress this. When the pictures of Alan Kurdi – the young Syrian boy pictured washed up on a Turkish beach who became a symbol of the refugee crisis – went viral, for the first time people whose lives are otherwise lived relatively far removed from the humanitarian crisis taking place across the Middle East were appalled. But what I found so shocking was that it took these tragic photographs to wake up many people to what has been happening around the corner for a long time. And something that we have the power to help stop. We all have to give and do what we can, and what Saqi can do is publish books like this one, which has already been picked up and spoken about by major news outlets including the BBC, The Times and the Guardian. So twofold, really. We hope to both raise awareness of the prolonged humanitarian crisis we face, and change the way members of the general public read these human stories.

How did you decide on the layout of the book and chapters?

Actually, we didn’t! Giles had been thinking about this project for a long time, and all his ideas and plans regarding the structure of the book are as you see them.

Saqi has published a number of photography books, for example Darkness Visible, about Afghanistan by Seamus Murphy, on fairly serious subjects. How do you get people to pay attention when many would rather just look the other way?

At Saqi, we publish works reflecting a progressive attitude in their treatment of urgent issues facing the Middle East. We are progressive and risk-taking, and pride ourselves in recognising the importance in works whose subject matter has seen them turned down elsewhere. We will continue to do this, as we have always done, even if the reception is sometimes less impactful than the work deserves.

The key is to be relentless and find solutions, rather than being disheartened when things don’t go the way you want them to. If one journalist for a major broadsheet turns down the option of featuring your story, you move onto the next one. But on the whole working on books like I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See restores your faith in humanity, not vice versa. Support for this project has been overwhelming, with numerous refugee and crisis charities sharing and offering what they can in regards to exposure. Social media is also a big help – as is Giles’s profile. The people who don’t want to look the other way are always looking out for you. 

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All the photographs are credited Giles Duley/UNHCR.

Journalist and author

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