Giles Duley: Migrant crisis an "unprecedented" opportunity to engage

Giles Duley: Migrant crisis an "unprecedented" opportunity to engage

Giles Duley is an award-winning British photojournalist who is committed to telling the human stories of conflict and its victims. DCMF spoke to Duley about the current migrant situation in Europe, and how the story is being covered
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Giles Duley during his recent trip covering the migrant crisis (UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis)


Journalists are too often failing to tell the real, human stories related to the refugee crisis, according to award-winning British photojournalist, Giles Duley, who believes that members of the media have an unprecedented opportunity to raise awareness and engage people in an issue which has traditionally been ignored by the public at large.

Duley, who lost his legs and one arm after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan generally chooses to focus on the long term impact of conflict in his work, and this has led to him following the refugee crisis extensively.

However, the current situation is like no other he can remember.

Speaking to Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), Duley said that the current situation is unparalleled in both its magnitude, but also the interest and coverage it has prompted across the globe.

Despite this environment, Duley believes that the media need to embrace the opportunity instead of complaining about the difficulties of getting people engaged with the story.

“I always hear people complaining about young audiences, saying that young people just don’t read newspapers anymore, young people don’t watch the news anymore, as if it the young people’s fault.”

“That is the way that technology has moved on now.  But it is our job to find out how we can engage them.  I think that that is one of the most important demographics - young people between 16 and 30, because they will be the people making decisions in the future, and that age group has a history of activism.”

Finding new ways to reach people

“It is our job to say, ‘OK – they are not engaging, so how do we interpret things for them,’” he says, explaining that his latest project has been shown with the band Massive Attack throughout their European tour. 

While audiences might not have been expecting to see photographs of refugees trying to reach Europe during the course of a musical concert, it is a new and innovative way of communicating the story to a wider audience who may otherwise not engage with traditional media.

“I am fed up of people’s negativity – I am fed up of people saying that photojournalism is dead, that newspapers are dead – fine maybe that particular way or brand is, but it is up to us to find new ways to engage people.

“The onus is always on us – we are the storytellers and we need to find ways to reach people,” he notes.

Throughout his career, Duley has found it particularly distressing when people have opted to ignore issues like the war in Afghanistan, a story which he covered widely, but to which he found people closed off.

Now, with the arrival of refugees in Europe and the widespread coverage of their suffering, people have been shocked into engaging with the issue.

“When have current affairs in Afghanistan been all over Facebook, when have they been an after-dinner topic of conversation?  People are asking questions now, and I see that as an opportunity.”

“Things are negative because this is the information they are often receiving, but we need to address that and present the other side of the story.”

Indicating the increased interest in the current situation facing refugees, Duley has recently finished a ten-page story for British magazine, GQ - the first for ten years – covering the subject.

Indeed, there is a hunger for more information on this story, for wider coverage of the context of the refugee crisis and the stories of the people involved.

“There is an opportunity – the door is open, it’s up to us what we do when we get in that room,” argues Duley.

“Humanising” crises

Primarily as a result of his personal experience while working in Afghanistan, Duley is passionate about exploring how conflict affects people’s lives, and bringing an audience closer to understanding the kinds of difficulties victims of conflict face on a daily basis.

The photojournalist firmly believes that the most effective way of bringing the reality of conflict to bear for people who may be thousands of miles away from the societies in question is to share the human side of these experiences.

“I see myself as a humanitarian in the sense that I see all people as equal. I care about all people and their stories, and it is my job to tell those stories and to humanise these big crises,” he tells DCMF.

Duley is passionate about highlighting the similarities and universalities between people rather than emphasising the differences, which is too often the narrative presented in the global media.

“My focus it to remind people that when it comes down to the basics, when you sit down with a family, their concerns are basically the same,” he says, mentioning that people hope their children can be educated, that their family can receive healthcare when needed, and that their elders have a roof over their head, among other basic needs.

Spending the time to get to know his subjects and truly understand their suffering means that Duley forms a strong emotional connection, a fact which can make his work mentally challenging.

He explains that he find it particularly distressing when revisiting people he has documented, and finding them facing the same predicaments in unchanged circumstances, despite the length of time that has passed.

“It’s a struggle and it is very hard not to get involved emotionally – I find it overwhelming and it’s a struggle to believe you are doing something positive and you are changing something through this.”

Taking time to process stories

Duley still chooses to work in the long form of journalism, taking time to find his stories and doing everything he can to refrain from rushing.

As part of this, he shoots on film, and often does not see his pictures for around three weeks after shooting.
“We need time to process them – we cannot just be robots to be controlled.  One of the things we do is interpret and tell the story through our photography.  It is important to take the time, but you need to fight for it.”

While recent years have witnessed the development of a media environment in which speed and rapid responses are valued above the analysis and critical thinking that has traditionally been associated with journalists and their industry, Duley believes that audiences are now looking for more depth in the work they consume.

“We have so much speed in journalism with short soundbites, and cold hard facts, and personally I think that kind of journalism has had its day.”

Such fast journalism is hard to engage with, and instead people are interested in the human side of the story argues Duley.

“Actually people are quite open to the journalist speaking about their emotions and their reactions. I trust the journalist – I want to see through their eyes, and therefore I react to their emotions.”

“I think it is important to share your emotions as a journalist as it gives life to the story,” he suggests.

Duley does not subscribe to the belief that Western journalists should not cover stories from other cultures, or that only people from within a certain culture should be telling particular stories.

“I think it’s about balance.  I think sometimes as a journalist it is our job to be an interpreter, and for a culture that is very different, it is our job to explain that.”

While it is imperative to refrain from approaching different cultures with arrogance, Du;ey believes being open minded and sharing information, experiences and stories contributes to the entire discourse.

“Never been more important” to fight for press freedom

With governments around the world taking steps to restrict the space in which journalists, activists and three thinkers are allowed to operate, Duley notes that the struggle for media freedom is as important as ever.

“Press freedom has always been vital, and over the years so much progress has been made and the ability for journalists to tell their stories from their own countries has improved and the safety of journalists has improved.”

“However, I think in the past five or ten years we have seen a decline in that again, and a lot of countries that were showing more freedoms have become more repressive.  We are witnessing things like in Turkey right now where newspapers are being taken over by the government and journalists are being arrested.”

“I think right now there is a need for us to strengthen our resolve into giving people freedom of expression and the freedom to tell their own stories,” he argues.

And this requires people from different countries and cultures to stand in solidarity and continue to follow their journalistic missions.

“At a time of globilisation and everything coming together, has it ever been more important for people to tell the stories from their own countries?  I don’t think so.”

“We as journalists are a brotherhood and we have to stand together and fight for everyone’s right to freedom of expression.”

It is hard not to be inspired by Duley’s work and his outlook.  Left with life-threatening injuries in Afghanistan which he admits could, and probably should have killed him, he returned to work in the country some 18 months later, and he continues to cover stories and subjects that deserve the world’s attention.

And while many journalists strive to control their emotions in a bid to remain professional and objective, Duley’s greatest piece of advice is: “Do not be afraid to be human.”

It is no surprise then that through his work a photojournalist, Duley’s work serves to remind us of this fact at all times; no matter the current media narrative, humans are essentially the same, and their plight should not be ignored by any of us.


Photography credits:

2,4,6,7,© UNHCR/Giles Duley

5,8 © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis



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