The photographer, who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan, on how he came to make his documentary series in which he cooks with families in countries ruined by war
Last modified on Sun 27 Feb 2022 04.46 EST
When Giles Duley looks back on the past 11 years, the worst of times, he suggests, wasn’t the moment that he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan while on assignment photographing a US regiment at war. It wasn’t even the 45 days he spent in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, undergoing countless operations, initially learning to communicate by blinking his eye while coming to terms with the fact that he had lost both his legs and one of his arms. It wasn’t the year of rehabilitation when, having been told he would never walk again, he walked again. The worst of times were the months, having been released from hospital, when he was sitting alone in a bedsit in Clapham, south London, waiting for the phone to ring.
“I lost everything when I got injured,” Duley, says. “I got no payouts. I just had this horrible a bare room with a bed and a chair and a little oven. I couldn’t get my wheelchair in there, it was so small. I was in a really desperate state. In hospital you live by goals: first survive, next learn to walk, next achieve independence. And then, there you are.”
The first words Duley had spoken, having been airlifted from the battlefield, were, “I am still a photographer.” Taking pictures had been his obsession since his godfather had bequeathed him an Olympus camera and a book of Don McCullin’s war photographs, aged 18. He’d worked for fashion and music magazines before he’d gone to conflict zones as a determinedly “antiwar photographer”. At his bedside in hospital, old friends and editors would tell him, “Don’t worry, Giles, we’ll get you working again.” But in his bedsit it was clear those promises had been quickly forgotten. “That was a very, very dark place,” he recalls. “Because, I was like, ‘I don’t know how I get out of this.’ Before, I might have always got a job in a bar or something, but now?”
Duley, always a vivid, generous storyteller, eventually persuaded Channel 4 to send him back to Kabul for a documentary and then funded his own trips to Lebanon to photograph Syrian refugees, pictures the Observer published. And he carried on from there, resuming his former career, mostly travelling under his own steam or for charities including the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.
Even today, with a decade of work behind him, he says, there’s still always a strange relationship with people he worked for in the past. In particular, he is dismayed, angered, by the fact that since his injury the only offers of work he still gets are around people with disability.
“It would be, ‘We’re doing a story on injured soldiers. We’d love you to take the portraits and talk about your own injuries,’” he says. At first, he did those jobs, but after a while he started to turn them down. “I just didn’t want to be that guy. I remember sitting with a producer who had worked with me on a couple of things, telling him about the stuff I really wanted to do. And he literally said to me, ‘Giles, if you want to work, you’re going to have to keep doing stories about disability.’ It was a very uncomfortable conversation. And I had several like that.”
While Duley was doing everything he could to prove that he was not limited by his injuries, travelling on his own to some of the world’s least forgiving places, coming back with remarkable pictures and stories, it was as if people didn’t want to believe it. That kind of reaction had started straight away for him in hospital.
“I used to do a lot of athletics when I was younger,” he says. “County-level sprinting and so on, and I love the Olympics. I was in hospital just before London 2012 and I remember a nurse said to me, ‘Giles, I bet you’re looking forward to the Paralympics.’ It was as if: that’s your people now.”
Duley’s wonderfully combative personal war against that kind of stereotyping has been fought on multiple fronts. One of them is in the kitchen. For a few years now he has posted pictures of the glorious food he has made on his One Armed Chef Instagram account. At first, he says, “it started as a kind of ‘fuck you’ to restaurants. I would go out, I’d be on a date and my food would arrive, and it had been cut up by the chef as if I was six years old.”
To begin with, he wouldn’t say anything. But it happened so often he started making comments about it: “I didn’t ask for my food to be cut up.” Sometimes waiters got quite angry. One of Duley’s favourite dishes to make is a delicate egg yolk ravioli, a handmade pasta. He got into the habit of showing the waiters pictures of this to prove his point, and then when they didn’t believe him, he showed the pictures to the chefs. One time, to finally prove the point, in a restaurant in Milan, he stormed into the kitchen and just cooked the ravioli in front of them.
Duley, now 50, is explaining all this to me in his flat on the ground floor of a Georgian house on the seafront in St Leonards on the East Sussex coast. One wall is books and photographs and tribal masks and old military tin hats. On the back of his front door is a sign: “Beware: mines.” He’s cooking me lunch in his galley kitchen, a starter of burrata, with roasted radishes and figs, and then a truly fabulous bowl of homemade pasta, Tuscan strozzapreti with chicken stock, morels and tarragon. He laughs as he’s serving it up, explaining how even when he cooks for people in front of them, they still assume there’s a trick. He had an exhibition of his pictures in Paris recently and for the opening-night party he made and cooked pasta for 30 people in an improvised kitchen in the gallery. Because he was cooking for so many he used a little motorised pasta machine to speed things up. And someone said, “Ah Giles, that’s how you do it!” as if he’d been caught out cheating.
Food has always played a significant part in his life. His dad is Italian, so that was taken as read. His mum was born in east London to Scottish parents. In the 1930s, at 16, she was sent away to work in a stately home. On the first day she was put in the kitchens and told to skin a rabbit. She brought all those below stairs skills to the family: no takeaways, everything made from scratch.
In Duley’s 20s and early 30s, food returned as a sort of after-hours salvation. “I’d been doing magazine photography,” he recalls, “and for five years, I ended up very depressed. I was drinking, doing lots of cocaine just to knock myself out. I was either working or I would just be in this stupor. But while I was in that state, I would invariably watch food programmes, MasterChef. I was on the road with Oasis or whoever, and then I’ll be going home, doing lines of cocaine through the night and bingeing on Rick Stein. I was obsessed by food shows.”
That kind of therapeutic instinct returned to him in full force after he had been taking pictures of the recapture of Mosul from Islamic State control in 2017 and 2018. He was based in a hospital run by the Italian charity Emergency, surrounded by scenes of unfathomable horror.
“I remembered one man coming up to me, and he hadn’t spoken for days. He had one son who had lost his eyes,” he says. “He just grabbed me and kept saying, ‘It wasn’t my fault.’ His story was that he had been at home during the bombing, he’d told his family to run and a bomb had fallen. They were all killed. He didn’t get a scratch, and this one surviving son was blinded. And he was just saying, ‘I shouldn’t have told them to run.’ Every day was like that. I remember just thinking: there’s nothing my pictures will do to stop this. I felt so powerless.”
When Duley came back to this flat, he just shut the curtains for days, didn’t speak to anyone. He was overwhelmed by the thought that all this was still happening, yet nobody cared. His way out of that darkness was recipe books.
“Weirdly, I started just cooking,” he says. “Making things like pastas and breads. I was often up all night doing this stuff. And I realised that it was the only place where I could find some peace.”
In some ways, he was challenging the dexterity of his surviving, reconstructed hand, mindless, like rolling a cigarette. And his neighbours loved it because he was taking cakes and stuff round to them at all hours. “I realised that was my therapy,” he says. “And my realisation was this: food is the antithesis of war. Where war is about breaking apart communities and families, food is about bringing them together.”
In thrall to this idea, Duley developed an idea for a TV series in which he would visit places ruined by war, but partly on a mission to cook with the families he met. He pitched this idea all over, to the BBC, Channel 4, wherever, but always got knocked back, told that it was too confusing a mix of things – the kind of response that makes you despair of documentary commissioning.
Ironically, it was only because of lockdown that he got to make the programmes. When the first shutdown happened, the American cable channel Vice got in contact with Duley to give him the green light, partly because some of the places he planned to visit were among the few countries not closed down. It worked because they were a production team of three, able to move quickly without much planning. Only once did they have to abandon plans, to go to Vietnam. Instead, they drove up to Scotland and did a film contrasting the food poverty in certain areas – kids fainting with hunger in schools – with some of the world’s leading seafood and meat production, just up the road.
Before I had come to see Duley I’d watched a couple of previews of the shows, one that sees him in the current war zone in eastern Ukraine, and one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are unmissable, warm-hearted films that don’t flinch from the realities of living in the shadow or aftermath of war, while holding on to things that make life bearable, notably food and friendship. As a presenter, Duley has an enormous natural curiosity, and a gift for helping people explain their lives.
In some cases this involves checking in with some of the families he has helped though a charity, the Legacy of War Foundation , which he set up in 2017 to try to change the lives of people he photographed.
“I think one scene sums up what we were trying to do with the series,” he says. “In Lebanon, we went to see Khawla, who I met when she was 12 years old. She’d come from Syria, where she’d lost her father, seen her school bombed and lost all her friends. Her mother had five kids, and because Khawla had heard her worrying about how she would feed them, she had tried to kill herself by drinking rat poison.”
When Duley met Khawla the first time, she had just got out of hospital and he decided not to do a story then because he thought she was too vulnerable. Subsequently, his charity was able to rehouse Khawla’s family and support her through school. When he went back with his film team, it was her 17th birthday and now it seemed fine to tell her story. “There’s a scene where we go to the family’s house,” Duley says, “and the mother is crying because her son has been killed in Syria recently. I’m there listening. And that feels like a traditional documentary: go to house, family tells you terrible story, you leave.” It’s what happens next that Duley loves. “The next scene is we’re on the beach, and I’m trying to cook for them. I’m doing a fish on a fire using this kind of fancy aquaponics seawater method to cook it. And they are all just making fun of me and Khawla is laughing her head off.”
Generally, Duley says, in this kind of film, there might be a reluctance to show those scenes, in case they dilute the tragic impact of what has gone before. In fact, he can attest, that’s half the point of tragedy, life good and bad, insists on returning.
It’s a similar understanding to that which has informed his arguments with producers over the years who tell him that viewers need to be told every time he appears on screen what happened to him, how he lost his limbs. He’s pleased to have mostly won those arguments with Vice. “I’m like, I’m eating fucking seafood in Scotland. The fact that I was blown up 10 years ago, is probably not relevant.”
It’s interesting, watching the programmes, just how quickly Duley’s prosthetics become an irrelevance beside his enthusiasm for the stories he uncovers. “For me,” he says, “it’s really important my own injury is not a focal point.” He hopes people will watch the films as they might watch Michael Palin, say, on his travels and think, “This guy’s living a great life.”
Talking to Duley, you can’t help but feel he was born for this kind of mission. As we chat, he drops in stories of the profound stubbornness that characterised his growing up. The time, for example, he insisted on walking, aged 12, from Yeovil to see his friend in Winchester, with a homemade rucksack. He was held back a year at school because he was dyslexic, and bullied as a result. He wanted to leave at 16, telling his parents he would not need qualifications because he would only ever work for himself. When they insisted he stayed on in sixth form he proved that point by studying for his A-levels but never opening the envelope containing his results. That envelope remains sealed to this day.
“I don’t know where this need to challenge myself came from,” he says, but he’s always had it. He trained as a boxer, then after school won a scholarship to a US college to try out in American football, an ambition that ended when he busted his knees in a car accident. One drunken night long after that, boasting he could run anywhere after sprinting home for a bottle of booze, he signed up for the toughest footrace on earth, the 156-mile Marathon des Sables through the Sahara, and then did it, on practically no training. “I remember,” he says with a grin, “running the first mile in the desert and thinking, ‘This actually was a really stupid idea.’” He finished it all the same.
The stubbornness was also the thing that gave him back his life. In the first instance, it expressed itself in looking hard for surgeons that he thought could do the things he wanted. He found Shehan Hettiaratchy, the lead surgeon at Charing Cross and St Mary’s hospitals, who agreed to do a “skin flap” on the stumps of his legs, connecting living tissue, rather than a conventional skin graft. The operations took 16 hours and Hettiaratchy has become a friend and trustee of Duley’s charity. One thing the surgeon said did not surprise him: “He told me, ‘I’ve never operated on such a stubborn body. It kept doing things it’s not supposed to do.’ Apparently,” Duley says, “even my cells were telling him to fuck off.”
The stubbornness also got him through the 45 days in the intensive care unit, the ultimate lockdown, strapped to the bed, unable to move. Strangely, not long before he had gone to Afghanistan, Duley had bought his then girlfriend the book of The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly. Now here he was trying to talk with her using his eyelids like the author Jean-Dominique Bauby. “Except,” he says, “in the film of the book there had been that romantic image of this beautiful speech therapist, who creates this custom alphabet. I had the NHS equivalent, which was a badly photocopied alphabet that I could hardly actually see because nobody had taken my contact lenses out.”
When he was first injured, and for a long time afterwards, there was a feeling similar to being thrown in freezing cold water. Everything was terrifying. To return to himself, Duley started to create photographic projects in his head. “One of them was ‘100 portraits’ before I die,” he says. “I would imagine the 100 people I wish I’d taken portraits of and visualise the photoshoots. That actually completely changed the way I now work as a photographer.” The other thought was, “Giles, you can give yourself a break now. You will never need to prove anything to anyone, again. Life is going to be really tough but enjoy it, and appreciate it and savour it.” He was 40. It was something like the ultimate midlife crisis.
He keeps in touch with some of the soldiers, other amputees, he was in hospital with. Some, used to the routine of the army, rather than the self-sufficient chaos of journalistic life, have found it tougher to adjust. “I quite often get calls,” Duley says. “The hard part is sometimes not the memory of the trauma itself, but how to cope with everyday stuff. The panic of supermarkets and thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing for dinner?’” The unaccountable terrors of domesticity.
The relationship that Duley was in when he was injured did not last. “It’s a complicated dynamic,” he says, “because for some people there’s a sort of glorification of the injuries and what you go through. Some people romanticise it, or they create their own narrative Hollywood script and that creates its own pressures.” He’s seeing somebody else, but tries to keep it very private and low key to avoid those issues. He still has to be wary of overcommitting – he talks about how before lockdown he was about to board a plane when his appendix nearly burst – and then got the flight a week after that operation; and then, in passing, about having malaria in an Indian field hospital in South Sudan. Still, you believe him when he says that “now is the calmest and happiest I’ve been in my life. I sometimes joke about like bomb therapy. It’s quite extreme, but, you know, I don’t know where I’d be if that hadn’t happened.”
His great adversary, apart from the limiting attitudes of others, is obviously chronic pain. He points to its three main sites – the stump of his arm, the “toothache pain” of the hand that was smashed to pieces and the flares of pain, “like an electric fence”, in his leg. It’s wearying and unignorable, he says, “but the fact is, I get tremendous pleasure from life. People say, ‘I’m so sorry for you,’ but they shouldn’t. I’m living the life I dreamed: I do work that I’m passionate about. I travel, I laugh and joke, I eat great food. I have this charity that’s having some small impact in the world.
“Of course,” he says, “I miss my legs. I miss my freedom. And sometimes things just suck.” He smiles. “Like I put a big pan in the oven the other day, I was doing a roast, but I couldn’t lift it out one-handed. I thought, ‘fuck it’ and ended up dragging the pan onto the floor and eating it there. It tasted fantastic.”
Episode 1 of The One Armed Chef is available now on Vice Munchies YouTube channel and officially launches on 7 March
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