When I met Giles Duley at a London hospital in October 2011 where he was recovering from the latest in a series of operations. Nine months earlier he had trodden on a landmine while embedded with American troops in Afghanistan and become the first, and so far only, British civilian triple-amputee to survive his injuries from the conflict.
Unable to move from his bed due to a life-threatening blood clot, a pale Duley, then 40, talked to me in detail about the fateful February day he stepped on a Taliban bomb and lost both legs and his left arm.
As a freelance photographer who documents humanitarian disasters he had braved more war zones than the average soldier. Although still very unwell when we conducted the interview Duley’s positivity, humour and determination was striking. He was desperate to get back to Afghanistan to continue the work that had been interrupted by his injuries – documenting the effect of landmines on civilians.
A year after our conversation Duley managed to gain the mobility and money to get back Afghanistan, taking the opportunity to not only shed a series of beautifully composed spotlights on the medical shortcomings and prejudice facing those disabled by landmines in the country but also to make a documentary film about his journey and the people he met.
Walking Wounded: Return to the Frontline screened on Channel 4 last night. The Telegraph called it the best 60-minute documentary of the year; the Radio Times called it “inspirational – not only to viewers but to the young victims he photographed”; and it moved The Independent’s TV critic Tom Sutcliffe to tears.
Introducing the film on Facebook last night Duley said: “If ever a film was made with blood, sweat and tears; this is it. I couldn't be prouder to have been part of its making and hope it creates the impact it deserves. Thank you to everyone who watches it. Just be warned, there will be tears!”
The documentary shows Duley returning to Afghanistan to discover that treatment for Afghan amputees - a significant number of whom are children - is tragically lacking. Despite the prevalence of civilian victims with either one or more limbs missing there is no strategic medical plan in place to help them.
Duley photographed many of the young patients as part of his ongoing dedication to bring largely untold stories to the attention of the Western world. The fact that he has shared such a similar and terrible experience immediately created an affinity and rapport between him and the patients and has resulted in an extremely moving and powerful photography series.
Duley remarked when I met him and again in a phone conversation today on the irony that becoming the victim of such awful circumstances has given him a louder voice to highlight the plight of others in similar situations. His first professional exhibition following the accident was called “Becoming the story”. His next, the fruits of his Afghanistan trip, opens at KK Outlet in London on 7 March and contains no detail of his own back story but tells only the stories of those he encountered.
“The work I do hasn’t changed but the audience has got bigger. I’m telling the same stories which have always been important to me but my voice has got louder,” he said. In addition to his award-winning reportage, upcoming exhibition and the Channel 4 documentary, Duley has written a slew of articles and a talk he did for TED (viewed over 160,000 times) was voted one of the very best of last year.
Having covered the Paralympics last summer, where he was asked if he should be standing with the athletes rather than the press, Duley knows first-hand that getting people to look beyond the disability can be trying at first.
During our interview in 2011, after he had spent months hovering between life and death, he told me that continuing to be defined as “a photographer” and not “a triple-amputee” was uppermost in his mind: “I’ve still got my right arm so if I can fix a tripod to my left stump and, so long as I can keep my balance OK on my prosthesis, it should work fine,” he said. Once released from hospital he had perfected the technique within months.
Duley said he hadn’t felt like going on patrol with the American soldiers the morning he stepped on the bomb. Some strange sense of impending disaster was holding him back. But not wanting to let the troops down he went anyway. Describing the point of impact he said: “I put my foot down, I heard this click. Then bang.”
“It was such a shock, like jumping into freezing cold water, when your mind suddenly can't process what's going on. This incredibly bright, white light and intense heat covered me. I was tossed into the air for what felt like ages. Then I crashed down, slap-bang on my side. There was no noise, no pain. Just deafening silence.”
Remarkably he remained conscious throughout. He told me the medevac crew CJ and Phil couldn’t believe he was awake “let alone asking extremely pertinent questions”. Shocking footage of his rescue forms part of the extraordinary Channel 4 documentary.
“It has been my goal to go back to Afghanistan for so long that it’s bitter sweet now I’ve done it,” Duley said today. “I’m not getting better. The legs are never growing back. All the rehabilitation I’ve been doing has been with this in mind so when I came back I realised it was as far as I was ever going to go. But it was a really big step and I really feel I have put it to bed now. I’m no longer the story. I never wanted it to be all about me."
Giles Duley: Afghanistan (2012) from 7 to 30 March 2013 at KK Outlet