The power of a story | Giles Duley | TEDxExeter

Translator: Monica Ronchi
Reviewer: Theresa Ranft My story begins with a small gift. An Olympus OM-10 camera, and a book by the war
photographer Don McCullin. When I was 18 years old, I had gone
to the States on a sports scholarship. I was the world’s worst boxer. I remember getting a backhanded
compliment from my coach. He said, “Giles, you take
a punch very well.” (Laughter) But as you’ll learn,
I’m quite a stubborn character and I wasn’t sure
that my lack of sporting ability wouldn’t get in the way
of a sporting career. But when I reached the States,
I had a car accident and I damaged my knees
and had to return to the UK. And suddenly I found myself in hospital, told I would never do
any kind of sport again. I had failed at school,
I’d been quite a problematic child, and lying in that hospital bed,
I became a very angry young man. I had no idea what I was going
to do with my future. Unfortunately, at the same time, my godfather Barry,
who I was very close to, passed away. But he bequeathed me two things that his wife, Neeta,
came to bring me in hospital. One was an Olympus OM-10 camera
that he had just bought, and another was the book
by the war photographer Don McCullin. Now, I had never really
come across photography. I grew up in a house
where art wasn’t a big thing, we weren’t really covering
or listening to the news. So suddenly, I was confronted by
these black and white images that Don McCullin had taken,
for the first time. Images from Biafra, from the famines
in Bangladesh, from the war in Vietnam, and I was amazed,
I was so moved by these stories. At night, I would turn the light on
and get the book from the bedside table because I had to look again. And to this day, if I shut my eyes,
I can still see those images. I was so moved that I knew
this is what I wanted to do with my life, I wanted to follow
in the footsteps of Don McCullin and document conflicts around the world. So with this Olympus OM-10 camera, I actually taught myself photography
lying in a hospital bed. I used to photograph the doctors,
nurses, my friends, anyone who would come in. As an 18-year-old
I mainly photographed the nurses. (Laughter) And when I left hospital, I had mastered
the basics of photography. But I had a few friends in bands
who were musicians, and they said, “Can you come along and photograph us?” And really by accident,
I became a music photographer. Suddenly magazines were commissioning me,
and I travelled around the world photographing the likes
of The Charlatans, Oasis, Marilyn Manson, Mariah Carey,
Lenny Kravitz, so suddenly I’d got into this
very exciting rock and roll life. I remember my Aunty Margaret,
a very stern Scottish woman, sitting there one
Christmas Day, and she said, “Giles, I thought you wanted to do
something serious with your photography, and here you are doing this silly music
and fashion – what went wrong?” (Laughter) I looked at her and said,
“Aunty Margaret, I’ve got to be honest, I’m just doing it for the
beautiful women and great parties!” She said, “Giles, seriously.” I said, “I’m 19 years old; this is
a legitimate reason for a career path.” (Laughter) For the next 10 years
that’s what I did, I loved it. I had an amazing time,
I met many amazing people, but increasingly,
there was a nagging sense that I should be doing
something more with my life, and that nagging sense grew
to become a depression, and I found myself really unhappy
with the work I was doing, with my life, but I couldn’t quite work out
what was going wrong. On the outside, to everybody,
it seemed like I had this dream life, but inside I was empty. One day I was doing a shoot
at the Charlotte Street Hotel in London, a very fancy hotel, and there was an argument going on
between the editor of a magazine and a young actress,
about her state of undress. Another thing that I’d grown
increasingly cynical about was the way women were portrayed
in the magazines I worked for. I was listening to this argument,
and I suddenly thought, “This is not why I became a photographer.” So in a rock and roll moment
I took my cameras and threw them out the window
of the Charlotte Street Hotel. That’s the story. Anybody who knows me knows
I’m less rock and roll and more Radio 4. I kind of had a little hissy fit
and I threw them on the bed. (Laughter) It’s just that they happened
to bounce out of the window; someone else saw them fly out the window,
and I had to go along with it. But it was a symbolic end
of my photography. I sunk into further depression, and really had no idea
where I was going with my life. I was only 29 years old
but I felt like my life was really over. And then I remembered that small gift, and I remembered that Olympus OM-10 camera
and the work of Don McCullin, and I realized that’s where
I had been going wrong, and that I hadn’t followed
what was my destiny. So at that point, I moved to Angola, I sold my flat, and I pursued
a full-time career as a documentary photographer
covering conflicts around the world. More specifically, I covered the effects
of conflict on civilians around the world. I was really interested in their stories. In 2011, while doing that work
in Afghanistan, I stepped on a landmine. I lost both my legs and my arm. At that point, I was told, at first,
my life would probably be over. Then I was told I’d never walk again
and I would certainly never work again. A few weeks after I got injured,
I watched on the news as the first uprisings began in Syria. As the months went on,
I had 37 operations in my first year, and through that recovery, again,
I watched the news, and I saw the crisis in Syria grow. As I started my rehabilitation,
as I was working to walk again, the only thing on my mind was I had
to go there and cover this story, because I knew this was
the most important story of my career, and the stories had to be told. Three years after my injury, I was
well enough to return to work full-time, and the first place I really wanted to go was to Lebanon, to document
the refugee crisis there. Lebanon is a country of 4 million people,
and by the time I went in 2014, they already had over a million
Syrian refugees living there. That’s 25% of the population. To put that in context, last year,
during the European refugee crisis, close to a million refugees
and migrants arrived in Europe. Europe has a population
of 250 million people, so imagine what
the pressure is in Lebanon. I was mostly interested
in the most vulnerable, those with disabilities,
the elderly, single mothers. So I went there and I started to document. This is one of the first people
I met; this is Khulood. Khulood had been out in her garden, her village in Syria was under siege,
and so she was growing vegetables. She was in her garden
with her children, tending to them, when suddenly she collapsed. A sniper had shot her through the spine,
and she fell in front of her children. Her family managed to get her to Damascus
where her life was saved, and then they got her to Lebanon. They ended up living
in this makeshift tent in an informal settlement
in the Bekaa Valley. When I went to visit her,
her husband, who’s in this picture, was her full-time carer. I asked Khulood, “What is
your hope for the future?” She said, “I just want
to be a mother again.” She described to me how it felt
– she was paralyzed from the neck down – when she heard her children
playing outside, and one of them would fall over
and scratch his knee. They would come in and lift her hand
and put it on the wound, and say, “Make it better, mummy.” And she said, “And I can’t even feel it.” I met Reem. Reem was asleep one night
in her house in Syria when a rocket hit. Her husband was killed
in the bed next to her, one of her daughters was killed
in the room next to theirs. She lost her leg. When I met her, she was living
in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, in a house that was not fully finished. She was up three floors,
so with her new prosthetic leg was not even able to get
in or out of the building. Her children no longer lived with her
because she felt ashamed, and she didn’t want them living there
when she felt she couldn’t be a mother. This was her father
who also lived on the rooftop. When I took his portrait, I said,
“Why do you live on this rooftop?” He looked out into the distance,
to the mountains, and he said, “That is Syria. I may
never return in my lifetime, but at least every morning
and every evening I see my home.” And then I visited Aya. When I first went
to see Aya, I was shocked. She’s a 4-year-old girl with spina bifida, meaning she’s paralyzed
from the waist down. When I went to see her, she was living
like the others in a makeshift tent. She was alone on a concrete floor. I saw her and I thought she looked
so vulnerable, like a victim, and one of the key elements in my work is I never want
to portray people as victims. They’re victims of circumstance but
I don’t like them to be seen as victims. So I said to the people I was with, “I can’t take this photograph, it’s wrong
and won’t represent her in the right way.” As soon as I said that, her family started to come back in,
people started to chat, and her mother, Shihan, said to me,
“You should meet her sister, Iman. Iman and Aya are the two
that should be photographed together.” I said, “Why’s that?”
And then they told me the story. Iman, who was only 12 herself, when their house was bombed in Syria
had taken Aya in her arms. They’d gone and sheltered in the basement
for three days with no food or water, and then they’d begun
the perilous journey from Syria to Lebanon that took them nearly three months. She had carried her sister Aya
that whole journey. Then I also discovered
that Aya was not a victim. She was actually the feistiest 4-year-old
I had ever met in my life. When Iman walked in, she shouted,
“Hey, donkey, pick me up!” (Laughter) They went out and started
playing hopscotch. I went and revisited several times. And, as I say, I discovered Aya was
this incredible feisty young girl, and so the photograph
I was able to take was this one, which I think really represented her. Last year, I was asked by the UNHCR to document the refugee crisis
across Europe and the Middle East. They gave me one of the most amazing
briefs a photographer’s ever been given, they just said, “Follow your heart.” For the first six months,
I documented the crisis across Europe, but I knew that if I was really to follow
my heart, I had to return to Lebanon and revisit the families
that I’d got to know there the first time. This is meeting Reem’s father. I gave him a picture I’d taken,
and his first comment was, “You made me look really old in this!” (Laughter) This is Reem, and you’ll see
her daughter Sara is now with her, and this is with her brother and father;
and life, in many ways, goes on. The cooking, all the kind of things
you expect a family to be like. But then the longer you spend there, the more you realize things
are not quite what they seem. The men aren’t able to work, and in many cases,
the children can’t go to school. When I spoke to Reem
about her daughter Sara, I said, “What is her education like?
How’s school?” I found out that Sara
hadn’t been to school for four years. In fact, she hadn’t even played
with any other children in that period. She was isolated on this rooftop, and this is the case for many
refugee children around the world. I, of course, went back
to visit Aya and her family. Things had changed a little, UNHCR has now
provided better accommodation for them, they obviously get enough food. Aya was as feisty as ever, here is she playing, again telling
her donkey brother to go faster, and so things were good in some ways. But again, when you spend time
with the family, you realize things
had changed, psychologically. When I first met them, they kept saying, “In six months we’ll return to Syria,
the war won’t last.” Now when I sat and talked to Shihan
and Ayman, Aya’s parents, they would say, “We’ve lost hope. We don’t think
we’ll ever see Syria again.” So now, they’re trying
to look for other options. On the last day I was there,
I got a phone call. I’d tracked down many people that I got
to know in Lebanon, but not everybody, and on that phone call
was a family member of Khulood. They said, “Khulood would love to see you,
she hears you’re around.” I said, “Where is she?
Where’s she living?” They said, “She’s in the same tent,
where you last saw her.” My heart stopped. I thought of all the people
I’d met two years before, she was the most vulnerable
and the most in need. I couldn’t believe that she could
be living in the same tent. I was shocked. When I turned up there,
I actually burst into tears. I said, “I’ve failed you. I tried to tell your story and yet here
you are in exactly the same situation.” Her husband hugged me, and said, “You didn’t fail us and we knew
you’d come back.” I was in turmoil,
I didn’t know what to do, I thought, “What’s the point of my work
if it doesn’t make a difference?” But the next day,
that stubbornness clicked in again and I said the only thing I can do
is to tell their story again. So I went back and over the next few days I documented everything
about their daily life. I can honestly say I’ve never worked
so hard as a photographer to try and tell their story. It’s a beautiful family and you can see
the connections that they all have. But imagine the fact that Khulood has not
been out of that tent for over two years. Every day she lies there,
just staring at the ceiling. This is her doing homework with the kids, this is her with her husband
who every day patiently looks after her. I was nervous on showing them
the photograph I took the first time. This is a picture I took of Khulood
soon after she was injured, with her living in this tent, paralyzed;
how will she take it? But I said to them, “I want to give you
the photograph I first took. When I took this photograph,
I did not see you as a refugee. I did not take a photograph
of a disabled person. I took a photograph of a couple
who loved each other so deeply.” Then they both started crying,
I started crying, and they just looked at each other
and expressed their love to each other. We are facing a global crisis. The refugee crisis affects all of us. It’s a global crisis
that needs global solutions. I believe we are at a crossroads in how we choose to treat
and deal with the refugee crisis. I also think it’s a moment
in the history of our humanity in how we deal with it,
and it’s difficult. I come home from trips, and people say, “How do you deal with everything
you see in these camps?” I say the biggest struggle
is that in those camps I see humanity, I see love,
I see compassion. Often when I come home,
that’s where I miss it. Every day we see
in the media negative stories. Every day politicians use
negative rhetoric for their own aims. Every morning when I look I see on social media negative stories,
with bigotry and hatred. It’s time for us who know what’s right to stand up, be counted,
and do something about it, because every time I see
one of those negative stories, I think of Aya, I think of Reem
and I think of Khulood, and I think to myself,
“What more can I do?” I want all of us to go home tonight
and think to ourselves, “What more can I do?”
because we can do something, we can make a difference,
whether that be raising funds, donating to some
of the large organizations, getting involved and volunteering
with grassroots organizations. There are so many things:
petition your politicians, and when you see
negative stories on social media, maybe point out the truths
to those people. I believe no matter how small our act is,
we can and should make a difference. I want to end my story with a small gift. Twenty-five years ago
my godfather passed away, and he left me an Olympus OM-10 camera and a book by the war
photographer Don McCullin. What I didn’t realize then
is that he had given me two things: in the work of Don McCullin,
he had given me the gift of stories, and with the camera, he had given me
the gift of how to tell them. I received a letter six months ago
from a young man in Australia, a guy called Mark,
and he started by saying, “I just want you to know that I’ve got
into Brisbane Medical School.” I thought, “Well, good for you,
but why are you telling me?” (Laughter) He then explained that he’d struggled
in his last year at school. It had been very difficult for him, he had problems at home,
had struggled academically, people had told him
he wasn’t smart enough. But he said, “I got into Brisbane
Medical School to do surgery and I was in the top 1% of my class. But I want to thank you, Mr. Duley. A photograph that you took
in Afghanistan inspired me, and every day I had
that photograph on my wall, and when I struggled,
I’d look at that it and say, ‘That’s why I want to do
what I want to do.’ ” Twenty-five years
after that camera was given to me, the ripples of that action
were still being felt and affecting people around the world. I’m a storyteller, but stories have
no power if people do not listen to them, so I want to thank you all
for listening to these stories today. Together, we have made
those stories concrete, but it’s now time to take action
from that strong base that we have built, because we must take action,
and now is the time to act, and I honestly believe, all together,
we can make a difference. Thank you. (Applause)

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13 Responses

  1. living sensei says:

    wow!! Thank you mr duley. you're such a great inspiration. I hope we can all genuinely reach out and make a difference.

  2. Shaun Attwood says:

    so moving, Giles

  3. Jorge Garcia says:

    yes, action is needed

  4. GoryWory says:

    Russian military are making the difference. They are bombing the terrorist scum right back to the stone age!
    Only solution for refuge crisis is to free Syria, and get people back to their homes. Also, after that, to help them rebuild their devastated country.

    Viva president Putin!
    Viva rightful president of Syria Bashar Al Assad!

  5. Melissa Cruz says:


  6. Gen McKenna says:

    Thank you Giles, just saw you on breakfast bbc

  7. Julio Esteban Perez Escudero says:

    Great talk and photography, your testimony is very encouraging. I think everybody willing to make a difference will accomplish in your case using images to tells story.

  8. lost soul says:

    You can't truly acknowledge how powerful this story is ❤️..He is one of the most inspirational People I've ever seen ?
    I wish all the people in the world would come across this video ?

  9. Sarah Monahan says:

    He’s so inspiring!

  10. Mark Harris says:

    Both my wife and I have quite severe disabilities. She is hemiparuplegic down her right side following a stroke at 28, then there are the cognitive difficulties like communication. I have a very unusual, extremely painful condition that is shutting my lungs down. Not making my lung as whole weaker, but shutting them down from bottom to top. I also have "extreme brittle" asthma (COPD) in my remaining 18% plus reversibility. I’m 59 and know I won’t be getting a State Pension the 22 different medications will see me off if my lungs don't. However, I am the luckiest man alive because of those who love me.

    All my darkroom images are mine and for my family as they are the images that have the most of me in their creation. Though I’ll be honest, many go in the bin because I’m super critical of my work. Then I give my digital images to a disability charity both my wife and I are involved with, in order for them to sell them to survive as a charity. We both work supporting those affected by the effects of austerity, hate crime and discrimination as well as every other difficulty disabled people have in the U.K. in 2019.

    The reason I told you about our difficulties is not a peeing higher or lower competition, but to explain why I have an opinion about a certain word. When people buy my images they use words such as "Inspirational", it’s a word I hate with a passion when spoken about myself. I just do what my heart and inner wellbeing leads to like most creative people, as my wife has to drive me to any location in reality I’m quite selfish. I am no different than any other person in a hide photographing wildlife or shooting landscapes from the roadside. OK, I admit I look a strange figure with my mobility scooter with all my wildlife gear on. I don’t do street photography on my scooter as it’s a step too far for me but I try to tell an urban story with my Zorki 4K. But like my Bronica ETRSi, my other film cameras including an OM10 or my digital Canons, none of my cameras are different than anyone else’s. There’s no magic button saying 'disabled photographer make it inspirational' they are cameras, no more, no less. It’s what you do with those tools that matters more than the condition of the person pressing the shutter. We just need those 9 inches behind the camera Adam's said was the most important part.

    I have never ever inspired anyone to pick up a camera, especially a disabled person. Those who do photography already haven’t been inspired to shoot any other way, or tell the story of the U.K. in 2019. That is the reason I hate the word, because for me it’s a lie. There’s a great video by a disabled comedian called Lawrence Clark about the word "inspirational" and how offensive it can be.

    You though are an inspiration and a very real one, not because of "Oh look at the disabled man, he can still use a camera." Please don't mix up huge respect for anyone willing to go to a war zone, and risk their lives to get the news out and inspiration. The fact you are a photographer with disabilities isn’t an inspiration, I know a few of them. It’s the fact that you do inspire people to tell important stories with their photography as Sir Don McCullin inspired you. To me as a fellow disabled photographer the story in the print is much more important than making an image with impairments. You truly are an amazing story teller, your images are phenomenal and tell an entire world the story. No one remembers Phan Thi Kim Phuk, with the exception of photographers, in fact I bet very few in the U.K. know who Nick Ut is, but everyone knows his amazing world changing Napalm Girl.

    You are also an amazing voice for many of us with disabilities, many of us can work with our impairments and should be respected as such. But those who can't work shouldn’t be respected any less.

    You Sir are not equal to those without disabilities but are better than 99.99% of those who pick up a camera and dream. Thank you for saying in your work "No special treatment, but equality, talent, skill and compassion."

  11. Riffat Ahmed says:

    I am motivated. 57 years old Bangladeshi woman will start to work for the young kids. Thanks for your help.

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