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Giles Duley: When a reporter becomes the story

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Giles Duley gave up a life of glamour and celebrity as a fashion photographer to travel the world and document the stories of the forgotten and marginalized. While on assignment in Afghanistan he stepped on a landmine, a horrific event that left him a triple amputee. In this moving talk Duley tells us stories of lives lost and found -- including his.

- Photojournalist
Giles Duley began his career as a fashion photographer. When it was time for a change he found himself on a journey of war and hardship. Full bio

Good morning, everyone.
00:09
When I was first asked to do a TED Talk,
00:12
I Googled to try and find out
a little bit more about,
00:15
you know, how it felt to be giving one.
00:20
And one of the first things I read
was a speaker in the States
00:22
saying that she felt fine
until she came onstage,
00:25
and then she saw the timer ticking down.
00:28
(Laughter)
00:30
And it reminded her of a bomb.
00:31
I was thinking,
"That's the last thing I need."
00:34
(Laughter)
00:36
(Applause)
00:38
Anyway, it's a great privilege to be here.
00:43
I think it's a bit of a joke
00:46
for an editor of a paper to choose
a photographer to open a speaking event.
00:47
(Laughter)
00:51
We're not renowned for our words,
00:52
and I spent the last 40 years
hiding behind a camera
00:54
so I didn't have to speak.
00:57
But I'm here today, and what I want
to talk about are stories
00:59
and the importance of stories to me
01:02
and, I think, the importance
of stories to everybody.
01:04
I'm sure today you'll hear
a lot of stories
01:06
and, by listening to other
people's stories,
01:09
I think we can learn
about the world, about other people
01:11
and get a better understanding.
01:14
So I want to talk about three stories
that I've done as a photographer,
01:16
and how they've inspired me,
01:20
and how, in my life, I've become
a part of the stories
01:22
that I document myself.
01:25
As John said, I was a fashion photographer
01:27
and music photographer for 10 years.
01:30
I enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun,
01:31
but always wanted to do
something more with my work.
01:33
And storytelling was always
something I wanted to do.
01:36
So 10 years ago, I set out
to travel the world,
01:40
to go and photograph
other people in their situations
01:43
and to record their stories,
to bring them back,
01:47
so that other people might understand.
01:50
But this didn't happen overnight.
01:53
When I worked as a music photographer
and a fashion photographer,
01:55
I always had this nagging feeling
that there was something missing,
01:58
that I wasn't quite
using my skills productively.
02:01
And it may seem
very obvious, the link, now,
02:04
but at the time,
I couldn't really work out
02:07
how could I use my photography
to do something useful.
02:09
So I gave up photography.
02:12
I walked away form it completely
and decided to do care work.
02:14
As a care worker, I started looking
after a young guy called Nick.
02:18
Nick has autism, very severe autism.
02:24
But over the years of looking after him,
we became very close friends.
02:27
I would give him a 24-hour care,
02:31
we would go off and do things
from swimming, going for walks ...
02:32
all sorts.
02:36
Bit by bit, though,
as I got to know him better,
02:38
I realized that his story
wasn't being told.
02:40
He self-harmed, he would punch himself
quite a lot in the face.
02:43
And nobody really got to see that.
02:48
So this is Nick.
02:53
He used to describe his life
as living downstairs at a party.
02:55
He said he could hear
the party in the kitchen,
02:59
but he felt like he was always
trapped in the basement,
03:02
in his own little world,
03:04
wanting to be part of the party
but not able to walk upstairs.
03:06
So I documented his life.
03:11
I started to photograph it,
03:12
not really with any intention
of doing anything with the pictures,
03:14
but just as a way of recording.
03:17
And as I started doing that, I realized
that I could tell somebody's story
03:19
through my photographs.
03:23
As I said, Nick would self-harm.
03:27
He would punch himself in the face.
03:29
And nobody really got to see that.
03:32
As we built up a kind
of closer friendship,
03:37
he finally would allow me
to actually see him doing this
03:39
and to document it.
03:43
It was a moment of trust.
03:45
The social services were not
particularly good at helping Nick,
03:49
and they said that he wouldn't be
self-harming as bad as we said.
03:52
So one day, I took a photograph
of when he'd really been self-harming.
03:56
We took that to the social services,
04:02
and their reaction was immediately
incredibly different,
04:04
and they managed to get a lot of help.
04:06
And I'm glad to say now,
eight years later,
04:09
I actually spoke to Nick last night,
04:11
and he wanted to let me know
that he was feeling a lot better,
04:13
and he doesn't do
the self-harming anymore.
04:16
And in some small way,
I hope that the photographs
04:19
was a part of that process.
04:22
The main thing it did is it inspired
me to go out with my camera
04:24
and to tell other people's stories.
04:28
One of the stories I did
was in Kutupalong,
04:32
on the border of Burma and Bangladesh.
04:36
Here, the Rohingyas refugees
have been left,
04:40
pretty much to rot,
04:43
for over 20 years.
04:44
This is a picture of the unofficial camp.
04:46
At the top, you can see
the official UN camp.
04:48
All these huts are the unofficial camps.
04:52
Literally, the raw sewage
runs through the camp.
04:55
The people there have been forgotten,
04:59
so I thought it was important to go
and document their stories.
05:01
So I arranged with the village elder;
05:04
the people would come along the next day,
05:06
and I would take portraits
of all these people
05:08
and record their stories.
05:11
So as the time went on,
I turned up in the morning,
05:13
I put a big, white sheet up,
and I started to photograph these people.
05:16
Suddenly, though, everything
got a bit out of control,
05:21
and, although it was still dawn,
05:24
we were filled in this small
little compound we had made
05:26
with literally hundreds of people
turning up with ailments and diseases
05:29
and just ... a hopeless situation.
05:34
And that's exactly
what their situation is -- helpless.
05:38
A child with a tumor that nobody helped,
who was slowly suffocating.
05:41
I got in a bit of a panic,
05:47
because these people were
coming up to me, desperate,
05:49
and I was trying to explain
to the village elder
05:51
that I was not a doctor,
and I couldn't help these people.
05:54
And the village elder
turned to me and he said,
05:56
"No, it's really important;
these people know you're not a doctor,
05:59
but at least somebody
is now telling their story,
06:02
and somebody is recording
what is happening to them."
06:04
And it was a good moment for me.
06:08
It was a realization
that maybe it was worthwhile
06:10
going off and doing these things.
06:14
Another story that inspired me
was in Odessa, in Ukraine.
06:17
I was documenting a bunch of street kids.
06:21
I ended up actually living
with them in a squat,
06:24
which I can say was an experience.
06:26
Many late nights of vodka-fueled violence
06:30
with me sitting in the corner with my bag,
06:33
just going, "When was this a good idea?"
06:35
(Laughter)
06:37
I would say it's moments
like that when I think,
06:39
"Why did I leave the fashion world?"
06:41
But they were great kids,
06:43
and on the last day,
they took me down to the sea
06:44
for a sort of trip, a sort of farewell.
06:48
There they are, drinking vodka.
06:51
And then Serge, who was the oldest
and the most violent --
06:52
he'd just got out of the prison
for stabbing somebody --
06:56
comes and puts his arm around me
and says, "We go swimming."
06:58
Now, I have to say, I had
a "Lonely Planet" guide to Ukraine
07:01
and in it, it gave some advice.
07:05
And in that advice was,
"Do not talk to the street kids,
07:08
at no point leave your baggage unattended
07:13
and in all counts, do not go swimming."
07:16
(Laughter)
07:19
So I was like, "I don't know
if this is a good idea."
07:21
Serge has got his arm around me.
07:24
I'm like, "OK." So there I am.
07:27
(Laughter)
07:29
I literally handed all my cameras,
all my equipment, to these street kids.
07:30
And they took it.
07:33
It's kind of funny to know,
if you look in the background,
07:35
you can see the other street kids
who didn't get in the water go,
07:38
"Why would you get in that water?"
07:41
But one of the little kids, Lilic,
07:43
he was the one who had taken my camera,
07:44
and he started taking photographs.
07:46
He was really excited by this camera.
07:48
And we talked a lot about
how I was going to get him a camera
07:50
and would return and we could start
to teach him photography.
07:53
He had a real eye for things.
07:56
That's him, there.
07:58
That was taken on the last
evening I was there.
08:00
I'd been staying there, but that night,
I left to go and collect my things.
08:03
And when I came back
in the morning, he was dead.
08:06
He had taken a lot of pills
and a lot of vodka.
08:10
And he had passed out in the night
and didn’t recover.
08:13
Again, it was another reminder
08:17
of maybe why I should record
these people's stories:
08:19
because their lives are important,
08:21
and it's important
for me to document them.
08:23
Then in February of last year,
when I was on patrol in Afghanistan,
08:26
I stepped on an IED.
08:30
That's me down there, somewhere.
08:34
I became part of the story.
08:37
At first, I was devastated
by what had happened, obviously.
08:39
I thought my work was over,
08:44
I thought everything
didn't make sense to me.
08:46
And then I realized:
I never set out to Congo,
08:50
to Angola, to Bangladesh
08:53
to take photographs.
08:55
I went to those places because I wanted
to make some kind of change,
08:56
and photography happened to be my tool.
09:00
And then I became aware
that my body was, in many ways,
09:03
a living example
of what war does to somebody.
09:07
And I realized I could use
my own experience, my own body,
09:09
to tell that story.
09:13
And it was also by looking back
at the other people I've documented.
09:15
I thought of Nick, and I thought
of his resilience.
09:19
I thought of the Rohingyas
and the fact that they have no hope.
09:22
I thought of Lilic and a lost life.
09:27
And in fact, it was the stories
that I've documented
09:30
that inspired me to get
through the last year,
09:33
to survive,
09:36
to get back up on my new legs
09:38
and to be able to come
and tell their stories,
09:40
but also my own story.
09:42
So I did a self-portrait,
09:45
because I wanted to show everybody
what a bomb does to somebody,
09:48
but also to show that losing your limbs
doesn't end your life;
09:51
that you can have
what people say is disability,
09:55
but not be disabled;
09:57
that you can be able to do anything
09:59
if you put your mind to it
10:01
and have belief in it.
10:02
It's strange,
10:06
but in many ways I look
at where I was a year ago,
10:07
and I look at where I am now,
10:09
and I realize that I have
a lot of things I didn't have then.
10:11
I wouldn't be sitting here right now
if this hadn't happened.
10:14
I wouldn't have been able
to show you those photographs
10:17
and tell you those stories.
10:19
I was lucky 10 years ago,
when I sat down and I tried to work out
10:21
what I could do to make
a difference in this world.
10:24
I realized that my photography
was a tool and a way to do it.
10:27
I think that's what's really key.
10:31
It's that we all can
be part of that wheel.
10:33
We can all be cogs in a wheel of change.
10:36
We can all make a difference.
10:39
Everybody here has an ability
to use something
10:40
to make a difference to the world.
10:43
We can all sit in front of the TV and go,
10:45
"I don't know what to do
about it," and forget about it.
10:48
But the reality is that we can
all do something.
10:50
It might be just writing a letter.
10:53
It might be standing
on a soapbox and talking.
10:55
It might be just recording
somebody's story
10:57
and telling it to somebody else.
10:59
But every single one of us here,
11:01
if we want to make a difference, we can,
an there is nothing to stop us.
11:03
And we all have our own experiences
that we can use as well.
11:06
So really, that's all I wanted
to talk about today.
11:10
I just wanted to say that life
goes on all around the world.
11:13
People are going through terrible things.
11:18
Everyone of us is going
through our own terrible experience.
11:21
But if we share those
and we talk about stories,
11:24
then we can inspire each other
11:26
to get through our own bad experiences.
11:27
I know that the people I've recorded
have gotten me to this point.
11:30
And I hope in some small way,
the stories I've been able to tell you
11:34
will help you get through things.
11:37
And in turn, I hope you will use
your experiences to help others.
11:39
Thank you very much.
11:43
(Applause)
11:44
Translated by TED Translators Admin
Reviewed by Camille Martínez

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About the speaker:

Giles Duley - Photojournalist
Giles Duley began his career as a fashion photographer. When it was time for a change he found himself on a journey of war and hardship.

Why you should listen

Giles was a photographer who, some years ago, tired of celebrity photoshoots and the attendant egos and tantrums that often accompanied them. He flung his camera on the photoshoot bed and it bounced out the window into the streets of SoHo, London. At that point he decided to change course and dedicated himself to using his camera to "tell unheard stories of those caught in conflict and economic hardship around the world." His work took him to Sudan, Angola, Ukraine and Bangladesh, among other places. Early in 2011, on assignment in Afghanistan, Duley stepped on a landmine. Despite the fact that the horrific accident left Duley a triple amputee, he continues to dedicate his life to telling stories through photography.

More profile about the speaker
Giles Duley | Speaker | TED.com