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19 November 2020

‘Document love, not disability’, humanitarian photographer tells QF’s Education City Speaker Series

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‘Document love, not disability’, humanitarian photographer tells QF’s Education City Speaker Series

Online talk in collaboration with WISH sees Afghan blast victim Giles Duley speak about the challenges of perception that people with disabilities still face

An award-winning photographer, humanitarian, and activist who lost three of his limbs in an Afghanistan blast has spoken of the “constant challenge” people with disabilities face to make others realize what they are capable of, in the latest edition of Qatar Foundation’s Education City Speaker Series.

The event, in collaboration with the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) – the global healthcare initiative of Qatar Foundation (QF) – saw Giles Duley, renowned for his work covering the human impact of war, speak about his own journey to cope not just with the physical injuries he suffered in 2011, but the mental toll they took.

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Photographer and humanitarian Giles Duley was the latest guest for QF’s Education City Speaker Series.

In a talk titled Reframing Our View Of Disability, held during the WISH 2020 virtual summit, Duley told his story through his own black-and-white photographs – and those taken of him in the moments, weeks, and months after he lost both legs and an arm when he stepped on an improvised electronic device while on patrol with a US regiment in Afghanistan.

And he told the online audience who tuned in to QF’s global dialogue platform: “Too often, people with disabilities are shown as victims, but I rarely find that – what I find instead is resilience, strength, fortitude and, more often than not, humor.

For people with disabilities, our injuries are often the only focus of the story, but the things that should instead be focused on are our love stories

Giles Duley

“I’m not a war photographer. My job is to document love. For people with disabilities, our injuries are often the only focus of the story, but the things that should instead be focused on are our love stories.

“I realized my greatest disability is in the eyes of others, and when people see me missing my limbs, they make assumptions about what I can and can’t do. And it is hard, and there are days when it is overwhelming, because we live in a society that makes it harder for us. But, equally, I do believe that people with disabilities can live a full life – and that, most importantly, we can love and be loved.”

Duley explained that one of the greatest obstacles people with disabilities face is “the perceptions of others”, saying: “You’d be amazed how many times people ask me if I can be in a relationship – it can be as if people think we’re not able to lead normal lives.

I tell people I’m just an angry man with a camera, who wants to make sure that someone sees a photograph I take and that something positive happens from it

Giles Duley

“Everyone fights this in their own way but, for me, it’s about showing what I can do. There are very few photographers with injuries like mine – we are often the subject, not the storyteller. I tell people I’m just an angry man with a camera, who wants to make sure that someone sees a photograph I take and that something positive happens from it. I couldn’t go home and feel I was leaving the people I photograph behind without anything changing.

Speaking about the need for progress in the way people with disabilities are perceived, Duley said: “There is still a long way to go – look at the representation of people with disabilities on television.

People around the world have gone through incredibly difficult things, but still see more joy than anyone. Resilience is life’s gift for dealing with suffering

Giles Duley

“They make up a very small percentage of people on screen and they tend to be portrayed as villains – every James Bond villain, for example, seems to have a facial disfigurement or be missing a limb. It’s actually quite hurtful and we have to stop representing people with disabilities in this way.”

Duley also revealed that his battle to overcome depression after his injuries was “a greater battle than dealing with losing three limbs”, saying: “When people trivialize mental health and say ‘pull yourself together’, I can tell you that regaining my mental health was harder than the physical injuries, but what got me through it was finding purpose, and through dealing with depression I built the resilience that gave me strength.

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In the virtual event held as part of the WISH 2020 summit, Duley told his story through his own photographs – and those taken of him after he lost three limbs in an explosion in Afghanistan.

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“People around the world have gone through incredibly difficult things, but still see more joy than anyone. Resilience is life’s gift for dealing with suffering.”

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