Giles returns to Afghanistan two years on to meet fellow amputees and victims of landmines

Giles talking to the father of Sediquallah, a patient who lost his fingers when playing with an unexploded device that he found. Photo taken at the Emergency Hospital in Kabul. Pic by Neil Bonner
Giles talking to the father of Sediquallah, a patient who lost his fingers when playing with an unexploded device that he found. Photo taken at the Emergency Hospital in Kabul. Pic by Neil Bonner

TWO years after suffering horrific and life-changing injuries photographer Giles Duley is to feature in a harrowing and hard-hitting documentary on Thursday (February 21).

The triple amputee lost his limbs and his left arm after stepping on a landmine while in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan on February 7, 2011. He was working with US troops as a freelancer, covering the plight of bomb victims in the war-torn country for the Camera Press Agency when he became one himself.

The one-hour film, Walking Wounded: Return to the Frontline, airs on Channel 4 at 10pm, with the first 10 minutes showing 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 while in the air.

In the documentary he is also reunited with two members of the team in a bar in Chicago in powerful emotional scenes.

Giles, who is 41, lost one leg below the knee, the other leg above the knee and his left arm was severed above the elbow following the accident two years ago that left him on the brink of death for many months afterwards.

He returned to Afghanistan in November, visiting two hospitals for amputees in Kabul, which is featured in Thursday’s film.

While out there he was shocked over the apparent lack of sufficient medical care provided for Afghan civilians injured by mines.

Giles said: “This was the story that I’d been supposed to be doing next before I had the accident two years ago, a story on civilian casualties. I’d promised it to Gino Strada, from the charity Emergency, which runs one of the hospitals I visited.

“I had gone through something very similar to the people I was photographing. Everyone I was photographing was a civilian casualty of the war. It was a very special visit, as people who first met me were surprised I was injured in Afghanistan and decided to return. They were giving me hugs, saying it meant a lot to them for me to visit.”

The photographer watched local medics undertaking life-saving operations and was deeply moved when he met patients as young as eight who have sustained similar injuries to his.

Giles said: “This was also an opportunity to compare and contrast the level of care out there with what I received after my accident.

“Some of the soldiers who had been injured two years before I was came back to the hospital as well and seeing them up and walking again was really encouraging. In a small way the visit helped me.”

Contrary to Giles’ treatment after his injuries though, there is no long-term medical plan for injured Afghan civilians.

Following his accident Giles spent 110 days in intensive care at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. He then went to the military rehabilitation facility at Headley Court, near Epsom, Surrey, where he underwent gruelling, intensive physiotherapy to get walking again. During his long spell in intensive care it was touch-and-go for him. At one point, his lungs had stopped working, as well as his kidneys stopped working, so he was on dialysis. His family were called in twice to say their goodbyes.

Giles, who lived in High Street in the Old Town for eight years before moving to London in 2009, said: “It was a miracle that I managed to pull through it.”

He had more than 30 operations From September 2011 and by Christmas that year he started taking his first steps on his new prosthetic legs. Giles left rehabilitation last April for the last time.

Early last year Giles spoke in London for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Landmines and Unexploded Weapons of Conflict (APPG), a cross-party group made up of MPs and peers, whose aim is to campaign for the clearance of such weapons.

He was speaking on behalf of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a not-for-profit organisation that clears landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in conflict zones.

Giles started back in photography again when he took pictures at last year’s Paralympics in London. He said: “It was the first time I was taking pictures again and there was a lot of stumbling about. For the average person there are three things needed to keep your balance: feet, your inner ear and eyesight. I have lost my feet and my inner ear was damaged in the blast the day I had the accident.

“For me, it was nice to be around the Paralympic athletes and an interesting experience. There was a lot of mistaken identity, with people thinking I was one of the athletes.”

Just two weeks after the Paralympics film crews for next week’s documentary started following Giles.

He said: “I was doing a talk in Chicago about my experiences through my work so they filmed me doing that. More importantly, I met up with two of the Medevac crew that had saved my life.

“I’d stayed in contact with them ever since I was able to in hospital, and we had sort of become friends online, but it was something that we all wanted to do. While the rest of the crew was back in Afghanistan, two of them were in America, so we arranged to meet up in Chicago.

“It was a very emotional meeting, because for them as well, I’d become a kind of symbol of the work that they did there, as most of the guys, unfortunately, in my circumstances didn’t survive. So for them it was really important to have somebody who hadn’t just survived, but was getting on with their life.”

Giles added the meeting was very emotional, involving a ‘lot of tears and a lot of whisky’. “We ended up in a tattoo parlour, which is always the sign of a good night out,” he said.

Giles started out in his profession being offered jobs to photograph bands. That led into celebrity and fashion photography. He spent 10 years working as a photographer in the fashion and music industries in both the USA and Europe. But it was always his intention to do more serious work. So he began focusing on humanitarian projects, and has since worked in conflict areas in Sudan, Angola and Congo, as well as with Medecins sans Frontieres and other charities.

His work has been exhibited and published worldwide in publications like Vogue and The Sunday Times.