Dedicated ‘for Aya and Khouloud’, Giles Duley’s intimate and distressing account of bearing witness to the refugee crisis is presented in an inch-thick paperback, at first somewhat reminiscent of a school text book at almost A4 in size. Its cover is an indistinct image of blurred figures running in shades of grey, with a loud red pop of a sticker in the top right hand corner saying “All profits donated to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency that protects the rights and well-being of refugees all over the world”. There is a responsibility incumbent on the reader of this book; to look, to listen, and to pay proper attention to the people inside it.
Duley puts faces and lives to the statistic of the 60 million refugees currently away from their homes. In contrast to Richard Mosse’s impersonal, dehumanized masses (Cameron’s “swarm”) portrayed in ‘Incoming’ at the Barbican last year, Duley gives us families and children, people with names and life-stories. Funded by UNHCR, there was always going to be a pro-refugee stance to the work, but Duley is aware of the need “to avoid the trap of bundling this into one story and one truth.” His account is not news-catching riots or bombs, but day-to-day of living stateless and in limbo.
The book is divided into three chapters entitled The Journey, Shelter, Portraits and Families, and our progress through the pages mirrors a refugee’s journey. The images are almost all heavy-grained monochrome, printed with dense blacks and a fair whack of contrast – a colour page is a shock; a sprawling spread-pile of neon-orange flotation vests in a Lesvos municipal dump, and another a punch in the face; a line of stony-faced border soldiers in riot gear behind a rough barrier of razor wire. The Journey is desperate, dark and sad. The second chapter is a collection of small, repetitive colour images of refugee camps across the Middle East, devoid of figures, and the third consists of large close-in portraits reminiscent of classic white-background Avedon shots but in a heavier register. The combination of empty-looking shed-like accommodation followed by named people has the effect of divorcing one from the other, presumably to reinforce that they don’t belong together, although I suspect that the projection of these portraits by the band Massive Attack during their shows will have employed them to greater impact. The final chapter, Families, is when we feel we actually meet some of the people Duley is introducing us to; we have personal statements alongside images of people in their temporary or new homes; we see their faces (sometimes smiling) and their belongings; their cooking pots, their laundry; the breeze-block walls of their homes; many meals being prepared and eaten. There is happiness in this chapter; children playing and families finding a way to get by as best they can. It would be trite to say that the book ends with a note of hope, but perhaps it ends with a note of ‘maybe’.
I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See is not a thing of beauty; a collectors’ photobook; it is a testament. It is not a story of conflict, or of war, of hope, or perhaps even of now. It is a story of endurance. As Duley says in his introduction; “With the refugee crisis, there can be no definitive moment, no single image that tells all. The refugee crisis is a million stories woven together into a tapestry that reads differently depending on where you stand.” This book is Giles Duley bearing witness from where he has stood.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Lottie Davies
I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See by Giles Duley and with texts by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Robert Del Naja, Massive Attack, is available from Saqi Books