“They gave me the greatest brief a photographer can be given: ‘Follow your heart’,” says Giles Duley of the moment the UNHCR asked him to work with them on documenting the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, with many of the photographs featuring in upcoming exhibition, I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See. “That was it really, I was free to do as I saw fit.
“I started by documenting the journey, the journey from Greece and the boat landing there, up through the Balkans and on towards Germany and Berlin,” he continues. “But that was only really one part of the story. The real crisis is happening in the Middle East in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Jordan. So most of the project then was concentrated in those countries.”
Duley travelled throughout the region for eight months, returning time and again to refugee camps and conflict zones in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. He jokes that he didn’t have a day off for over half a year – but adds that he needed to take time to get to know the people he was photographing.
“You need to spend time with people, you need to respect these people, you have to get to know them, becoming friends before you start talking about making photographs,” he says. “Too many people turn up and start taking photographs immediately, and you’ve created a barrier. I’m a photographer whose camera spends more time in the bag than it does out of it. I can spend days and even weeks with people before I even bring out my camera.”
Yet the journey to take these photographs has not always been easy. In 2011 Duley sustained massive injuries after stepping on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Afghanistan, losing both legs and one arm. Continuing his work in photojournalism has been a mammoth task, especially given the fact he carries all his own equipment and works in sometime hostile environments. “I don’t think my photos are as much in focus anymore. Focus is overrated though,” he laughs.
“But photography is absolutely everything in my life and the only time I don’t feel like I have a disability, the only time I don’t feel in pain, is when I am taking a photograph,” he continues. “There are a lot of extra challenges which almost make it impossible, but I think the people I document look at me and hear my story and immediately we have something in common. They meet me and they know that it’s not easy for me to be there; they see me struggling, in pain, really making all the effort I can and challenged to take their photograph.”
Duley says his desire to see the refugees helped outweighs his personal difficulties, and that’s an ethos that carries through to the exhibition of his work coming up at The Old Truman Brewery. He’s chosen to make it an interactive display, hopeful that this will empower those who come to see it, inspiring them to reach out to those in need.
“The world at the moment can feel overwhelming. What I want to do is remind people that any small act can make a difference,” he says. “Don’t think globally – it’s ridiculous to think that you can end the war in Syria individually. Of course you can’t. But can you bake a cake and take it down to your local refugee centre? Of course you can.”
The show will also involve other artists, with Semaan Khawam will be the artist-in-residence, creating new work every night of the exhibition, and Rob Del Naja of the band Massive Attack has creating a soundscape to go with it. A supper gathering each evening will host up to 100 people, featuring cuisine from a Syrian couple who have set up a food outlet in London. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the exhibition will be paintings from children living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, an addition which is made possible through the support of Sir Bobby Charlton’s charity, Find A Better Way. The pictures depict both the horrors the children have escaped, and the conditions they continue to endure.
“The exhibition just becomes this transition point – there will be new artwork created by the exhibition,” says Duley. “I think that’s exciting, it means it becomes alive. These often tragic stories will continue living in other forms, whether through painting or through music, so it’s about making the exhibition a place of life and a celebration of that life.”
He hopes that in doing so he can promote a positive, enriching experience, far away from the current political polemic surrounding migrants and migration. “I have a ‘Burning House’ theory,” he explains. “Even right now, we hear people have extreme views and there’s a lot of hatred in the world. But I believe most people, if they were going past a burning house and they saw someone in the window, would not ask ‘Is that person black or white, is that person straight or gay, is that person Muslim or Christian?’
“Their instinct would be to try and save that person. My job is to make sure that people see refugees in the same way they would see people in a burning building, because the situation is the same.”
I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See runs daily at The Old Truman Brewery, 4 October – 15 October. Giles Duley’s photobook of the same name is available now, published by Saqi books, with all profits being donated to the work of the UNHCR.