Giles Duleys moving images of refugees on the perilous jaunt to Europe

In October 2015, photographer Giles Duley was commissioned by the UNHCR to document the refugee crisis. Over seven months, he visited 14 countries in the Middle East and Europe, from the refugee camps of Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to the beaches of Greece, to tell the stories of the individuals and families forced to flee their homes. The photograph from that assignment are collected in a new book.

One million refugees attempted to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2015. How do you begin to go about documenting a narrative of such magnitude ?
The UNHCR gave me the greatest brief ever given to a photographer merely follow your heart. So, rather than try to cover the whole crisis, I tried to cover a few stories within it and that was how I retain my focus. There is no such thing as truth in photography, which is why the book has the title I Can Merely Tell You What My Eyes See . As soon as I go to one beach and choose one person to photograph, Ive made a decision and Ive ruled out thousands of other stories. Politician and the media often try to simplify the narrative, but the fact is, if you have a million people intersecting into Europe, you have a million different stories.

You were on Lesbos in the autumn of 2015 when up to 5,000 people a period were landing on the beaches. What was it like ?
Ive worked in Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, and have insured some of the worst of humanity, and yet I found myself standing on those beaches in inundates of tears. It was hard initially to work out what was different. What was it I was seeing that I hadnt insured before? Ive insured a lot of refugee camps, but they are generally static places. What Ive never seen is people moving en masse like that, putting their lives on the line, risking everything for freedom, for security. To learn the anxiety on their faces, but also the succor that theyd ultimately constructed it, was wholly overwhelming.

How difficult is it to be behind a camera watching scenes like that unfold ?
I didnt meet one photographer or correspondent who hadnt got involved at some stage, jump-start in the sea, grabbing people off the barges. I was handing out foil blankets. That was the shocking thing: we were in Europe, people were landing every day, so it wasnt a astonish, and yet there were no ambulances or medical squads on that beach. On more than one occasion we have now set hypothermic babies in our auto and merely turn up the heating.

Another image of refugees arriving in Lesbos from from The Journey: Lesbos to Berlin SepDec 2015.

The photograph you took in Greece are shot in black and white, making them a timeless feeling. Was that deliberate ?
Very much so. Ive gone back to shooting on movie, and with this volume I wanted to create a document, a record of what happened, because this is unprecedented.[ Hitting on] film meant this could be from any period, from the second world war onwards and maybe that helps in a way to topic those preconceptions of us and them. Why would you think it was right to help people fleeing during the second world war and then be wondered whether we should be helping people fleeing conflict now?

Some of the most memorable images are the portraits of individuals against a white backdrop, devoid of context. Why photograph them in that lane ?
As soon as you photograph somebody standing in a refugee camp, you learn them as a refugee. By putting them against a white sheet, it gives you the opportunity to look at them as people. Its a very naked thing, and quite confrontational in a way; youre staring at them and theyre looking back at you. I enjoy my white sheet; its the best-travelled white sheet in the world.

Were they willing subjects ?
Theres a portrait in that series of a woman called Shamah, a dame in her 90 s from Homs, who has a tattooed face. When I turned up at her village in Jordan she was shaking her thumb at me basically saying: We dont want a photographer here, we want aid. At minutes like that “youre feeling” stupid. Im merely there with my camera and these people are starving and they need medical supporting and I have nothing. But I expended the next couple of periods getting to know the families. And on about the fourth period I went back and I asked some of the peoples of the territories in their own communities if they would help me put my white sheet up. I turned away to load up my camera and when I turned back, Shamah was standing there in front of the sheet. The best photograph are never taken, theyre given.

Shamah Darweesh, over 90 years old, from Homs.

What struck me in some of your images was the feeling of everyday family life persisting in the refugee camps, despite the often dire conditions
When I go into these camps I dont see people hollering or throwing bricks, although thats the image sometimes portrayed in the media. Most families merely want to create some kind of normality for their children. You learn laughter, you learn enjoy, you learn kids playing, people cooking, and its so important that photographers reflect that because those are the moments that we can all relate to.

Theres a photograph I enjoy of three women having a cigarette in Jordan. My translator had said it would be hard to get womens portraits because theyre religious. But on the third largest or fourth period, they asked if they could nick a cigarette off me. They didnt want their husbands to know, so we all sneaked round the back of the building to have a naughty cigarette and the latter are laugh and “its one” of those minutes of intimacy that are so precious.

I found the images of Khouloud, the mother who was confined to her couch in a tent in Lebanon for two years after being paralysed by a snipers bullet, especially moving .
When I get this brief to follow your heart I knew Id have to go back and learn some of the families Id documented two years earlier in Lebanon. When I get injured[ Duley stepped on an IED while working in Afghanistan in 2011, losing both legs and his left arm ], one of the hardest days for me was not the trauma , not the rehab, but the two years after that, when I got no run, Id lost my home and I lived in this tiny bedsit. The phone never rang , nobody wanted to committee me and it was really heartbreaking. Then in 2014 the charity
Handicap Internationalsaid that they would take me to Lebanon to meet and document some of these refugee families. The thing that really moved me was those families wholly trusted me to tell their stories. Khoulouds family in particular took me in and trusted me to do my job and that was the moment that I got my life back.

I felt this huge debt to them, so when I went back two years later and found Khouloud in precisely similar situations as before, I felt I had failed them. Khoulouds story resonated with me because she was trapped in her couch and she couldnt move and Id expended a year myself in a hospital couch and I know how it feels to be trapped by your own body. I had this feeling that if I could somehow help to set her free I would have done one good thing in my life. I satisfied one of the organisers of an American charity, Random Acts, and he was so put forward by Khoulouds story he set up a crowdfunding campaign and we use my photographs and within the space of a few weeks we had raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Khouloud and her family, Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, February 2016: in 2013 a snipers kill left her paralysed from the neck down.

In the foreword to your volume, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, expressed the view that providing protection to people seeking refuge is a critical aspect of the identity of postwar Europe and of its foundational values. Have those values been found wanting ?
People have started to realise that maybe governments are not going to step in and do the things we expect them to do. One of the most encouraging things Ive seen in the past couple of years is the number of volunteers people who had no background in humanitarian work saying I want to do something about this. Theres a photograph I took of two Greek dames strolling along the seafront in Lesbos. Every period they would stroll along the beach to hug the children arriving on the barges. When I asked them why, they explained to me that their moms had been refugees from Turkey and had landed on those same beaches as children. They said, Whenever we learn those children, we learn our mothers.

This is part of a bigger project, Legacy of War . Whats the narrative behind that ?
Im not a campaign photographer, Ive got no interest in photographing people firing gun. My interest has always been in what happens to civilians caught up in conflict and the longer-term legacy, whether its psychological or physical injuries or the contamination of landmines. And no matter where these people are Colombia, Angola, Cambodia they say exactly the same things. The topics are universal.

At school you discover the dates of conflicts, their lists of generals, the number of casualties, but nobody talks about the consequences. So as well as employing photograph I wanted to work with poets and musicians and to go into colleges and to raise awareness and maybe, by merely one degree, to change the lane we are talking here about conflict.

I worked with Massive Attacklast year they showed my photograph on stage on tour and Ive just done a partnerships with PJ Harvey. Shes written a song called The Camp with Egyptian musician Ramy Essam and the video is all the photographs from the first section of the book, shown in an improbably cinematic and emotive way.

Giles Duley: I dont know how much longer I can continue doing it. My body is almost at breaking pointbut I feel this is what I was made to do. Photograph: Simon Vinall

You were already documenting humanitarian stories before you got injured. Can you learn a difference in your work before and after the accident ?
I dont genuinely talking here how hard it is for me to work as a photographer. You genuinely feel it in a place like Lesbos, where photographers are running around, kneeling down, standing on things. I cant do any of that. I am working with this incredibly limited palette, and sometimes that really get me down because I see images I cant take I cant get there in time, I cant kneel down, I cant get the angle and it breaks my heart. Ive had to say to myself, dont think about what you cant do, focus on what you can and excel at that. So I invest less hour thinking about the clever image, the interesting aesthetics, and more about how I connect with person. I have a lot more empathy with the people I photograph now and that is reflected in the work.

The run must take its toll. How do you keep going ?
Every day Im in physical ache. Every period I struggle emotionally with “whats happened to” me. But I know that there are people around the world who are experiencing that for the first time on that day. Maybe I feel some kind of solidarity with them but I also feel that theres nobody better equipped to be telling their stories than I am.

I dont know how much longer I can continue doing it; my body is almost at breaking point. I stroll on two prosthetic legs and have one arm and I end up depleted and bruised, with my legs full of blood every day. But I feel this is what I was made to do. For a lot of my life I was looking for a sense of purpose. I had success as a music and way photographer but there was an emptiness in that. I suffered from depression in my late 20 s and early 30 s and, having discovered what I do now, thats run. I can have a direct and positive impact on someone else life and thats improbably powerful.

I Can Merely Tell You What My Eyes Realise: Photograph From the Refugee Crisis by Giles Duley is published by Saqui Books on 12 June, 25. To ordering it for 21.25 going to see or call 0330 333 6846. All gains will be donated to the UNHCR. Free UK p& p over 10, online orderings merely. Phone orderings min p& p of 1.99

Observer event: Narratives from the frontline

Thursday 29 June, 7pm, at the Guardian offices, London N1
Giles Duley joins the Observer s Emma Graham-Harrison, the UNHCRs Sybella Wilkes and Hassan Akkad, a teacher incarcerated by the Assad regime, to discuss the refugee crisis. For details or to volume tickets go to

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