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8 October 2019

The images of war that show we are all the same

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Giles Duley has spent much of his life photographing conflict zones. But, as he explains at an exhibition hosted by Qatar Foundation, he wants to capture the hope rather than the horror.

When Giles Duley is asked to choose one of the pictures he has taken during his career documenting the impact of war, and where he would like to see it portrayed, he has an immediate answer.

“It’s a picture of an Iraqi child called Dawood,” he says. “He lost both his feet and one of his hands in the Iraq war. And with his remaining hand, he is giving the ‘V for Victory’ sign, which symbolizes his belief in peace and hope, and that despite his injuries, he is alive.

“Politicians around the world failed Dawood, but he never gave up. If I had the chance to put this picture anywhere, it would be in the bedroom of Donald Trump – in fact, I’d place it in the bedroom of every country’s political leader, so it would be the last thing they see before they go to sleep and the first thing they see when they wake up in the morning. Decisions that politicians are taking are destroying the lives of millions of children who are just like Dawood.”

Duley’s work is being displayed at Doha’s Fire Station as part of an exhibition, curated by the World Innovation Summit for Health, that illustrates the links between art and health.

Duley, an award-winning British photographer, was speaking at Artistic Dimensions to a Healthier World, an exhibition at the Fire Station arts center in Doha that has been curated by global Qatar Foundation initiative the World Innovation Summit for Health. It focuses on the relationship between art and health, particularly in the context of conflict zones.

And at the heart of the exhibition are photographs that Duley has taken around the world and that graphically show the challenges faced by people ravaged by war, and those who try to help them. He recently won an award from Amnesty International for his work chronicling the lives of refugee women in Angola, and works closely with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

But he wishes he would become “jobless” – because this would mean that there were no more wars or human tragedies to photograph. “I am one of the few people who work in documenting conflict zones, so if I didn’t have a job doing this, I would actually feel that I have achieved my goal in life – to help remind people that everyone, wherever they are in the world, is the same.”

Driven by a passion

Duley – who got his first camera when he was 18 and says it gave him “a voice” – lost both legs and one arm while reporting in Afghanistan in 2011. “I’m the most stubborn person you could ever meet. People say I’m brave, but I’m just stubborn, because photography is my passion and that is what drives me to keep doing what I do.

No matter how impossible it might seem at first, you have to continue to believe in your passion and your ability to face down challenges.

Giles Duley

“I had 37 operations, and when I was in hospital, doctors and people around me were telling me I wouldn’t be able to work again. But I didn’t listen to them. I was searching inside myself to discover how I could respond to this challenge. No matter how impossible it might seem at first, you have to continue to believe in your passion and your ability to face down challenges.

“Surrender is very easy. I just don’t believe in it.”

Describing his job as being to tell the stories of people in conflict zones, Duley emphasizes the importance of winning their trust. “They have to believe in what I am trying to do,” he said. “I spend a lot of time with them and share in their daily lives – making food with them, just listening to them.

The humanitarian photographer’s greatest hope is that he would be left “jobless” by there being no more need to cover war, conflict, and suffering.

“I choose the people I look to photograph in the same way that I choose my friends. I don’t have a criteria. I just feel an instant emotional connection with them. At the end of the day, we are all the same – politicians may try to convince us that we are different, but we are not.”

“Whether I’m in a clay hut in Sudan, a tent in Jordan, or an apartment in London, I see the world the same way – it’s about family, it’s about hopes, and it’s about dreams.”

Capturing feelings

Asked about the differences between his images and those that appear on social media and news bulletins every day, Duley says: “I don’t consider myself a war photographer, but a love photographer, because I document the human relationships within families.

When people see my work, I hope they feel they are in the same place as those in the pictures. Every story, every family, remains with me forever.

Giles Duley

“I took pictures of a grandmother fixing her niece’s hair, a father teaching his son mathematics while bombs fell, a mother feeding her son. Most photographers in conflict zones take pictures that are heartbreaking. Through my pictures, I want to show that these people have families, and to capture the true love and the genuine feelings that they have for each other.”

All of Duley’s images in the exhibition are black-and-white, because, he claims, “colors confuse you”. “Black-and-white pictures express the stories I want to tell, and the emotions I want to show, in a better way,” he explains.

“When people see my work, I hope they feel they are in the same place as those in the pictures. Every story, every family, remains with me forever. I carry their lives with me through my photos, and because of technology and social media, I can share these images with the people who are in them, showing them they are not forgotten and that their stories are still alive.”

Before the injuries he received in Afghanistan, Duley says he always felt that no matter what he saw around him, he could leave at least some part of it behind because he would eventually fly home. “Now, when I’m doing my job, I feel I can empathize with the people I photograph – I feel closer to them, and that helps them to trust me to tell their story as it needs to be told.”

Artistic Dimensions to a Healthier World runs until October 25.

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