Giles Duley has been getting a lot of attention recently as the photographer who lost both his legs and an arm after stepping on a landmine in Kabul while documenting American troops in Afghanistan. Giles has been reluctant to speak about himself and his accident, but it’s the work that he’s been compiling for ten years that I really wanted to talk to him about.
VICE: Hi Giles. Can you tell me about your trip to visit the refugees on the Burma/Bangladesh border?
Giles Duley: That was exactly the kind of story that I love to work on—and I know that VICE does very similar sorts of things. Refugees were coming out of Burma and the Burmese said they were Bangladeshis while the Bangladeshis said they were Burmese. So nobody wanted them and they kept getting passed around. It was insane enough that people were starving to death and dying from basic illnesses, but even the UN wasn’t prepared to help them. It was bizarre—we were staying in Cox’s Bazar, which is the center of the Bangladeshi surfing scene, then you drive a couple of miles inland and suddenly you’re in these refugee camps.
Portrait by Jake Lewis.
The camps look a little like favelas from your photos.
Yeah. There’s an official camp, but they’re only allowed [to have] 25,000 people. So some of the asylum are forced to live below, where all the sewage from above runs down into their shacks.
Jesus. Your photos show the effects of some of the really nasty diseases caused by those conditions as well, right?
Yeah. The most basic of mistakes cost lives there. One kid had scratched her eye, which then got infected, and without antibiotics or access to local doctors, her face swelled up to the point of choking her to death. They’ve been left there some 20 years without any real help, so that’s the kind of story I want to tell. One of the village elders put the word out that I wanted to take photos, then the next day a whole mass of people brought all their injured and dying relatives. At first I thought, “Shit, they think I’m a doctor,” but then I realized they just wanted someone to tell their story. That’s when I learned that a photo can give people who are otherwise hopeless a real sense of empowerment.
You’ve spoken before about an ethical battle you’ve felt within yourself when taking challenging photos. Could you describe the inner process behind your photo of the young boy who was losing his fight to survive in Sudan?
I remember the first time I really felt it: ten years ago when I was in Angola photographing people in really shitty situations, and it hasn’t left me since. That case in Sudan was a 12-year-old boy who’d been shot in the stomach and arm. He was alone and it didn’t look like he would make it—he was just a terrified boy on his own. So yes, it’s incredibly hard to make that ultimate decision: Do you take a photograph? You tell yourself you’re there for the right reasons, and that’s important in telling the story. But, as a human being, if you didn’t feel some sort of remorse then there’d be something fundamentally wrong with you. It doesn’t seem to bother some photographers at all, though.