Giles Duley is no ordinary man, and so it follows that his two-night take-over of St Mary in the Castle, to raise awareness of his charity The Legacy of War Foundation, was no ordinary event.
Duley exhibited powerful photographs from his exhibition ‘I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See’ which document the refugee crisis, gave a deeply moving talk of his own experiences and hosted a supper for 240 people including more than 50 members of the Hastings’ Syrian community. He also exhibited art works and writings by local Syrian children, and gave the stage to performances by refugee musicians curated by Brighton music charity Best Foot Music.
Upon arrival, guests were led upstairs to the venue’s gallery where Duley’s black and white photographs, haunting and beautiful in equal measure, were displayed around the venue’s back wall, as the dramatic viola of Syrian Raghad Haddad was played from the stage below.
Telling the story of the refugee crisis in Duley’s own way, they begin with four photographs that show the hellish scenes of the treacherous oversea journey to Lesvos, made by tens of thousands between 2015 and 2016. These are followed by places and people far less known to the mainstream media. Fourteen stunning portraits of men like Hussein, 25, women like ‘Shamah’ in her 90s, and children like Murad, seven, some of Duley’s most iconic work, celebrate with dignity and reverence the resilience of his subjects, all of whom are civilians who have suffered deeply from conflict and many of whom have lived in camps in Lebanon or Jordan for many years.
The exhibition closes with images of two families, living with severe disabilities in the most adverse of conditions – Khaloud, who is paralysed from the neck down, and Aya, a seven year old with spina bifida. Instead of wallowing in their struggles, Duley captures the love and joy of two families who treasure every day they spend together.
Guests then made their way downstairs where Duley explained that ‘tonight I want you to imagine you are all guests in my home. Please sit next to people you don’t know, and make conversation, come up with ideas, build a community.’.
A three-course Syrian meal followed, cooked by Joey Antonowicz Behnan of South Coast Suppers, who collaborated with local Syrians Esraa, Shiraz and Shaza, punctuated by music from Sudanese artist Bashir Al Gamar – a man who was tortured for two weeks in his home country for writing an anti-establishment poem.
The night’s main event was a deeply personal talk by Duley himself.
He spoke of his early history as a successful music and fashion photographer in the 90s which preceded a depression born from a weariness of celebrity culture. He explained that while working in The Hastings Arms he took a part time job as a carer for a young boy with complex needs and how this inspired him to pick up a camera again, but to focus his lens on stories which mattered.
This was the motivation for Duley’s excursions to some of the most under-reported conflict zones in the world. Instead of photographing conflict itself, he chose to photograph civilians who had been affected by it – but never to portray people as victims.
Most poignantly, surrounded by his friends from Hastings, and photographs of his friends from around the world, Duley opened up about the incident in 2011 when he tragically stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost three of his limbs.
Despite being told he would never walk again, his unparalleled determination (or ‘stubbornness’ in his own words) saw him rehabilitate and return to the front line to finish his assignment.
As with all of Duley’s work, he doesn’t look back at this trauma as one of tragedy, but a celebration that he is still alive.
He doesn’t think of the limbs he’s lost, but of the right hand he still has which enables him to continue his work – and share the stories of those who would otherwise never be heard.
As desserts were served, prepared by local Syrians Osama and Abdul, Duley inviting guests to join his charity ‘The Legacy of War Foundation’, which directly funds bespoke initiatives which support the individuals and communities he meets, and aims to build a global community to influence government policy. It’s message is clear – “No More War”.
It’s clear that Hastings has the perfect community to act as a hub for such a charity – after all, Duley’s inspiring character motivated a team of over 50 people to come together to create and run this event – all of whom were unpaid volunteers.
As King Size Slim played the audience out, a free newspaper was given to guests, written by Duley and Massive Attack, who are the patrons of his charity and long term collaborators of the photographer.
Duley’s photographs are being exhibited free of charge at The Crypt of St Mary in The Castle from 10am to 5pm every day until the end of July.
For more information visit https://www.legacyofwarfoundation.com/.