Giles Duleys moving images of refugees on the perilous journey to Europe
In October 2015, photographer Giles Duley was commissioned by the UNHCR to document the refugee crisis. Over seven months, he visited 14 countries in the Middle East and Europe, from the refugee camps of Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to the beaches of Greece, to tell the stories of the individuals and families forced to flee their homes. The photographs from that assignment are collected in a new book.
One million refugees attempted to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2015. How do you begin to go about documenting a story of such magnitude?
The UNHCR gave me the greatest brief ever given to a photographer just follow your heart. So, rather than try to cover the whole crisis, I tried to cover a few stories within it and that was how I kept my focus. There is no such thing as truth in photography, which is why the book has the title I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See. As soon as I go to one beach and choose one person to photograph, Ive made a decision and Ive ruled out thousands of other stories. Politicians and the media often try to simplify the narrative, but the fact is, if you have a million people crossing into Europe, you have a million different stories.
You were on Lesbos in the autumn of 2015 when up to 5,000 people a day were landing on the beaches. What was it like?
Ive worked in Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, and have seen some of the worst of humanity, and yet I found myself standing on those beaches in floods of tears. It was hard initially to work out what was different. What was it I was seeing that I hadnt seen before? Ive seen a lot of refugee camps, but they are generally static places. What Ive never seen is people moving en masse like that, putting their lives on the line, risking everything for freedom, for safety. To see the fear on their faces, but also the relief that theyd finally made it, was completely overwhelming.
How difficult is it to be behind a camera watching scenes like that unfold?
I didnt meet one photographer or journalist who hadnt got involved at some stage, jumping in the water, grabbing people off the boats. I was handing out foil blankets. That was the shocking thing: we were in Europe, people were landing every day, so it wasnt a surprise, and yet there were no ambulances or medical teams on that beach. On more than one occasion we had to put hypothermic babies in our car and just turn up the heating.