Why Take Photographs?

Photographer Giles Duley – who himself was photographed minutes after he lost both legs and his left arm in 2011 as a result of stepping on an explosive device – asks how photography can be justified when documenting the horrific injuries of war

Abdulah in Erbil, by Giles Duley

I’ve covered few stories that have affected me as much as documenting injured civilians in Mosul. The time I spent there, earlier this year, left me questioning the validity of my work and bereft of hope. For a month after returning home I hid from the world. When faced with such darkness and violence, what value can a photograph have? Does it become voyeuristic to capture and share those moments? Against such horror a camera seems impotent, its use almost perverse…

I believe photography comes with great responsibility and as soon as I lift my camera to record somebody’s story, I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Nothing in photography goes more against human nature than the process of pointing your camera at somebody injured, afraid or in real peril. So, why do it? Does it, can it, make a difference?

In February I was based in a hospital run by EMERGENCY in Erbil. Every day they were receiving dozens of badly injured civilians from the fighting for Mosul. Even after over a decade of photographing the effects of conflict, the scenes I witnessed there were amongst the worst I’d ever seen. Babies with amputated limbs, a young child paralysed by a sniper’s bullet, whole families lost. It was beyond words.

In the past, I have referred to how I try and find a positive in such situations, a moment of humour, or to show the love between loved ones, families. But what I witnessed from Mosul left me beyond that: there are times when you can find no such image, no positive. I think back to Raghad, a man I met in the hospital: For four days, I watch him sit silently by his injured son’s bed. He nods when I walk by, nothing more. Then one day he comes over and grabs my arm.

“It was not my fault,” he pleads through dead eyes, a hollow expression I have rarely seen. “I did what I thought was right.”

He tells me his story: His family sheltered beneath a table in their home as bombs landed around them. The house opposite was hit, then the house next door, and at that moment his nerve gave; he told his family that they must run. As they left the front door, a third bomb dropped. Raghad’s wife, three daughters and two sons were all killed instantly. A son, Abdulah, survived, left blind in one eye.

There is nothing you can say to such a story. You cannot say ‘things will get better’, because they never will. There is no hope, no positive angle. This is the real face of war and its sinking, sucking horror.

I photograph his son against a white wall, a patch still on his left eye. Skin pitted by shrapnel, his expression as hollow as his father’s.

I could only see the darkness and terror of what was happening. I was shooting angry, disregarding my normal practice of not showing the blood and gore. I wanted the world to see what was happening and reel away as I had.

As the days passed, I knew this was wrong. It should not be about me, but about those I was photographing, and to do their stories justice I had to work in a balanced way. I don’t like the phrase ‘to give people a voice’, they have voices already – my job is to make sure those voices are heard.

But there’s still that question: Why do it? What difference will a photograph make anyway? Only recently I’d heard my inspiration, the war photographer Don McCullin, say there was no point to his decades of work because wars still go on. So, if my photograph makes no difference, why point my camera at a child who’s just been injured? It’s an intrusive act.

On the last day, I sit with Dawood Salim, a 12-year-old boy who has lost both of his legs and most of his right hand. For the past week, I’ve been visiting him and his mother: He always smiles and jokes. For the first time, I feel ready to take his photograph.

I ask his mother, “Do you mind if I photograph your son?”

She looks at me with a defiant yet resigned stare: “When a child is injured like this, the whole world should see.”

Does this answer my doubts? Does that make it all ok? Of course not. But it reminds me of my simplest role: to act as witness, to tell their story. What Dawood’s mother has said has not given me permission, but has challenged me to do what she has asked. There is no point in taking a photograph if I do not then do all I can to make sure the whole world sees it.

That is where my duty lies.

This is an excerpt from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe click here.

Duley’s exhibition, I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See was shown from Wednesday 4th through Sunday 15th October, The Old Truman Brewery, 89 Brick Lane, London, E1 6QL.

In this article, he reflects on the exhibition and presents a video collaboration of the event directed by Phoebe Arnstein.

Ways of Seeing: Brett Steele

For the final film in our Ways of Seeing series, we visit the offices of Brett Steele, director of the Architectural Association School of Architecture

For over 10 years, Brett Steele has been the director of the Architectural Association School of Architecture, the only private architectural school in Britain. It’s a position that has seen him bring more than 150 teachers to the school from Europe, Asia and the Americas, while updating its curriculum and developing new departments to ensure it remains relevant to contemporary architecture.

In the last installment of our Ways of Seeing series, which, over the past fortnight, has examined the unique perspectives of six creatives, Brett discusses how he got into architecture, the joy he finds in his work and how he builds his identity around his glasses.

See below for more from the Ways of Seeing series.

Brett wears acetate double bridge frame opticals STARCK EYES at DAVID CLULOW and his own clothes

Film Credits

Director Dean G Moore
Producer Anthony Le Breton
Director of Photography Chris Ferguson
Editor Tom Sweetland
Creative Direction Black Sheep Studios
Styling Alex Petsetakis
Styling Assistant Amii Mcintosh
Grooming Liz Daxauer at Caren using Tom Ford Grooming
Port Production Director Nick Rainsford

Ways of Seeing: Sam Cotton

In the penultimate film from our Ways of Seeing series, menswear designer Sam Cotton recalls how he got into fashion

As one half of menswear brand Agi & Sam, who, in 2013, won the British Fashion Award for Emerging Menswear Designer, Sam Cotton insists that he should not be taken too seriously. After meeting Agape Mdumulla during an internship at Alexander McQueen, the pair set up their brand in order to create as they liked and to move away from the traditionally regimented fashion world.

Here, in the penultimate film from our Ways of Seeing series, which profiles six influential creatives, Sam, wearing Persol opticals, discusses the freedom that being a fashion designer offers and how most of his collections begin with a joke.

See below for more from the Ways of Seeing series.

Sam wears optical glasses PERSOL at DAVID CLULOW and his own clothes

Film Credits

Director Dean G Moore
Producer Anthony Le Breton
Director of Photography Chris Ferguson
Editor Tom Sweetland
Creative Direction Black Sheep Studios
Styling Alex Petsetakis
Styling Assistant Amii Mcintosh
Grooming Liz Daxauer at Caren using Tom Ford Grooming
Port Production Director Nick Rainsford

Ways of Seeing: Bompas & Parr

For third film in our Ways of Seeing series, Harry and Sam of Bompas & Parr welcome PORT into their laboratory where they blur the lines between science and food

Having met while at school, Sam Bompas and Harry Parr were, at first, only looking for something to do in their holidays, and set up an ill-fated jelly stall in London’s Borough Market. Although the stall failed, their partnership as Bompas & Parr remained.

They soon established themselves as specialists in architectural jelly making – winning the support of Sir Norman Foster, Richard Rodgers and Nicholas Grimshaw – and have since gone on to produce experiences that explore the juncture of food and science. To date, some of their most unusual projects have seen them create a chocolate waterfall, a banana-flavoured cloud, as well as an emerald green boating lake and ‘crystal island’ on the rooftop of Selfridges in London.

In the third installment of our Ways of Seeing series, which explores the unique vision of six creatives, Harry and Sam, wearing Ray-Ban Aviator opticals, talk about some of the 2000 projects they’ve worked on, how their small jelly company has grown over the years, and the way in which eyewear impacts their daily lives.

See below for more from the Ways of Seeing series.

Sam and Harry wear metal Aviator opticals RAY-BAN at DAVID CLULOW, Ribbed saddle shoulder jumpers SUNSPEL and their own boiler-suits

Film Credits

Director Dean G Moore
Producer Anthony Le Breton
Director of Photography Chris Ferguson
Editor Tom Sweetland
Creative Direction Black Sheep Studios
Styling Alex Petsetakis
Styling Assistant Amii Mcintosh
Grooming Liz Daxauer at Caren using Tom Ford Grooming
Port Production Director Nick Rainsford

Ways of Seeing: Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Superstar curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist features in the second of five films profiling creatives at the top of their fields

Hans-Ulrich Obrist may well be the most famous curator working today. In November 2009, he was listed as number one on ArtReview’s list of the most important people in the art world, and his work as artistic director of London’s Serpentine Gallery has seen him play a vital role in developing and shaping contemporary art today. In 2008 he published A Brief History of Curating, the first comprehensive study of his field, while at the same time he has worked to widen participation in the arts at the Serpentine with the themed Marathon series and the annual architectural commission, the Serpentine Pavilion.

Here, in the second film from ourWays of Seeing series, exploring the unique perspectives of six influential creatives, Obrist, sporting Paul Smith opticals, muses on what being a curator means in the 21st century.

See below for more from the Ways of Seeing series.

Hans-Ulrich wears acetate opticals PAUL SMITH at DAVID CLULOW

Film Credits

Director Dean G Moore
Producer Anthony Le Breton
Director of Photography Chris Ferguson
Editor Tom Sweetland
Creative Direction Black Sheep Studios
Styling Alex Petsetakis
Styling Assistant Amii Mcintosh
Grooming Liz Daxauer at Caren using Tom Ford Grooming
Port Production Director Nick Rainsford

Ways of Seeing: Edward Holcroft

In the first of our Ways of Seeing film series featuring six influential creatives, Edward Holcroft tells PORT what motivates him to be an actor

Edward Holcroft shot to prominence with appearances in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, and in critically acclaimed British TV series Wolf Hall, and London Spy where he co-starred alongside Ben Whishaw. He has shared the stage with Mark Rylance and Dominic West and later this year he’s set to appear in The Sense of an Ending, the big-screen adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel. Here, as the first instalment in PORT‘s Ways of Seeing series, where six creatives give an insight into their practice and reflect on the impact of eyewear in their daily lives, Holcroft, wearing the Ray-Ban Clubround opticals, discusses what motivates him as an actor.

Edward wears Clubround opticals RAY-BAN at DAVID CLULOW, Washed horse hide bomber jacket and crew-neck cotton sweatshirt PRESIDENT’S, T-Shirt SUNSPEL, Brut Knut dry selvage jeans NUDIE JEANS

Film Credits

Director Dean G Moore
Producer Anthony Le Breton
Director of Photography Chris Ferguson
Editor Tom Sweetland
Creative Direction Black Sheep Studios
Styling Alex Petsetakis
Styling Assistant Amii Mcintosh
Grooming Liz Daxauer at Caren using Tom Ford Grooming
Port Production Director Nick Rainsford