‘You focus on the positive - the negative will destroy you’

Photographer Giles Duley. (DER0614MM001)
Photographer Giles Duley. (DER0614MM001)

In a garden, in a hospital in Afghanistan, photographer Giles Duley found a sense of peace.

Just 18 months before, in the same city, Giles’ life had changed irreparably and unequivocally when he stepped on an IED laid by the Taliban while on out patrol with the US military.

Giles, who had travelled to Afghanistan for charity ‘Emergency’ to photograph the stories of civilian casualties of the ongoing conflict, had just become a casualty himself.

“It was a relatively calm moment in the chaos of war,” he says of the second his life changed. “It was just my day. I was thrown up in the air. I remember a big white heat. There was no real sound - there was no feeling. There was just this heat and I remember landing on my side to see that my legs were gone, my hand was mangled and I realised I couldn’t move. I thought I was paralysed.

“It was bewildering - that’s the word I keep coming back to. It was just like trying to hang on to any kind of sense of what was going on - anything tangible to keep you going.”

And he was grateful when he started to feel the excruciating pain that follows such a traumatic injury because then, he thought, he was alive and he had something to fight against.

“I never lost consciousness,” he said. “But I had the pain to cling on to. That was better than before - when I was lying there feeling my life slip away - convinced I was going to die.

“I just kept shouting out ‘I’m not f***ing dying in Afghanistan’”

After being transferred back to the UK he spent 46 days clinging onto life as his organs threatened to shut down - but even then he was determined - in his conscious moments - to continue his career.

“I had lost everything I could afford to lose,” he said, “but I still had my right hand, my eyes and my ears. I was still a photographer. I told my sister that three days after I came home.

“I didn’t like it - but I did see it as an opportunity. The toughest thing with my work was getting the story out there - it was hard to put a story out there, to find a hook. But to be able to know that people would be interested in my story - and to deflect that onto the work I did, in a way that was a positive thing.

“Right from the beginning I realised I could only ever really focus on the positives. You see people that focus on the negatives and it destroys them. There are days when I get depressed, and frustrated but if I focused on that where would I end up?”

Remarkably he returned to Afghanistan - to the scene of his trauma - and he said that journey gave him a sense of peace that helped him heal.

“For me it was about going back to work - and going back to my life. It was symbolic for me - it was saying I didn’t blame the Afghan people - they didn’t do it. My work felt more important than ever - I was there to photograph civilian casualties injured by landmines - and it had just happened to me. If I couldn’t tell their story then who could?”

He has no intention of stopping - he is determined to continue to tell stories. He has just returned from Jordan - and a Syrian refugee camp and he will travel to Sri Lanka next.

He is fascinated with post conflict Northern Ireland - and plans a return to Derry soon. “There are a lot of stories to be told here. I’m fascinated by the shared consciousness of a post conflict society - how we try to heal, the shared guilt, the frustration. I relate to that.”

But this week about the Garden of Reflection at the newly refurbished Holywell Trust building. It was there he reflected on his time in the garden in the hospital in Afghanistan, where he found calm on his return journey to the country.

“I remember, amid the chaos, sitting in this very calm shared place which belonged to no-one. And I felt at peace there.

“I hadn’t changed. I was still a photographer.”