Whilst embedded with the US army in Afghanistan, British humanitarian photographer Giles Duley stepped on an IED – the explosion left him with horrific injuries and ultimately – a triple amputee. Now Channel 4 look at his extraordinary story in a new documentary as he returns to Afghanistan.
18 months after sustaining injuries that meant he hovered between and life and death for months, he kept the promise he made to himself the day of the incident: To return to Afghanistan to complete his work documenting the impact of the invasion on civilians – now focussing on the wounded who have sustained injuries similar to his. This film documents Giles’ courageous return to Afghanistan as he undertakes his first major photographic assignment since the explosion – in the country where he very nearly lost his life.
Giles Duley lost his limbs whilst working alongside American troops, whose medical team treated him as one of their own, giving him the very best trauma care the world has to offer. The film features footage of Giles’ dramatic helicopter rescue by the US military and the work of the US Medevac team as they battled to save his life whilst in the air. Incredibly, Giles is conscious throughout and at one point asks the medics, ‘Am I going to live?’. In this film he is reunited with them in a bar in Chicago and in emotional scenes they all acknowledge the impact they have had on one another’s lives.
Two days after the explosion, Giles was back in Britain receiving cutting-edge medical care – he later became the first civilian to receive the intense rehabilitative treatment available to British soldiers. Eighteen months and close to a million pounds worth of treatment later, Giles continued to ask himself what would have happened if he had been one of the thousands of Afghans who have suffered similar injuries?
Giles returns to Afghanistan to discover that treatment for Afghan amputees – a significant number of whom are children – is tragically lacking. He is deeply troubled by the lack of sufficient medical care provided for civilians by coalition forces. Despite the prevalence of victims who are either amputees, or like Giles, multiple amputees, there is no strategic medical plan in place to help them.
Giles proves to be an inspiration to many of the wounded. That fact that he survived his own injuries is testament to his sheer willpower – and it is certainly true that his recovery has been astonishing. After three months at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Unit in Headly Court, Giles was living independently and walking on new prosthetic legs.
The first thing Giles checked immediately after the explosion was that his right hand was intact. He remembers thinking: “I can still work as a photographer.” But he is yet to prove to that he is as skilled at capturing an image as he was prior to his injuries. This film documents the immense physical and mental challenges Giles has to overcome to go back to work, whilst also featuring interviews with the surgeons and medical staff who helped rebuild his life.
“Right from the beginning of this happening, people wanted to record my story and record my recovery. People were getting in contact when I was still in Intensive Care! Personally, I wasn’t particularly interested in that – telling my story didn’t seem that important. But quite early on what I realised was because of what has happened to me, the work that I do would get more attention. One of the hardest aspects of the work that I do is getting people to actually see it. So I realised that my story could be used as a way to tell other people’s stories. The way I see it, what I’m doing hasn’t changed, but my voice has got a lot louder.
“I had so many offers from people wanting to make documentaries, but for me it was important to find a team of people who were as interested in the current affairs, in the stories I was documenting, as much as my story. I really didn’t want it to be about me. I describe this as being like a pebble in a pool – you get all these ripples, and all these ripples effect those around you. Those stories are really fascinating, from the surgeons to the medevac crew to the people I’ll be photographing again. So I saw myself as the glue holding those stories together. It also helped me make sense of what happened to me, to be able to reason that something good came out of this really hard experience. If that meant me using my experience to tell the story of other people, then it kind of made it a bit worthwhile.” Giles said of the project.
The Channel 4 documentary airs in February.