Picture: The Associated Press photographer Huynh Thanh My covers a Vietnamese battalion pinned down in a Mekong Delta rice paddy about a month before he was killed in combat on Oct. 10, 1965. (AP PHOTO)
For someone who, by his own admission, has ‘lost everything’, photojournalist Giles Duley looks surprisingly chipper when we meet in a smart South African hotel for breakfast.
The previous day he’d been treated as something of a media darling, with applause and genuine whoops from the participants greeting him as he took to the stage of the International Press Institute World Congress to share his story.
But now he was preparing to fly back to London - something that’s not as easy as it sounds for a man with no legs and one arm.
Yes, ‘losing everything’ for Duley is a rather more serious matter than an ailing bank balance or even bankruptcy - he knows he’s lucky to be alive and, despite being homeless and pretty broke, being alive isn’t something he takes for granted.
I fill the time between breakfast being ordered and the start of our interview by asking after his stay at the hotel. His only-partly jokey response about the guest room being bigger than the accommodation he would be moving into when he returned to the UK left me feeling a bit awkward about my own good fortune.
And then we talk about the terrible accident which nearly killed him when in 2001 and the way he has rebuilt his life since.
“I was a fashion and music photographer for years and then gave it all up to work with NGOs and communities worldwide, particularly these whose voices remain unheard especially in conflict zones,” he explained.
“Then, in Afghanistan in 2001 I realised I’d stepped onto an IED and became a triple amputee losing both my legs and an arm.
“From that day on I spent 46 days in intensive care and another year in hospital with a 36 further operations and, from day one, I said I would go back and be a photographer. In fact, days after I was injured I said to my sister ‘I am still a photographer’ and in about 18 months I was in Afghanistan and documenting civilian casualties.”
Could he explain what drove him to return to his photography in such incredibly difficult circumstances?
I set out, however naive or crazy it might sounds, to change things.
“In a small way, my photography could change things, so when I got injured that hadn’t changed, why would I stop now?
“I knew the dangers before I got injured, nothing really changed, I just knew it would get a lot harder to do physically, and obviously with some scarring, but now I have more empathy with the people I am photographing, more understanding of the stories. In a weird way it feels more like a responsibility now, if I don’t tell these stories, who else will?”
I left Duley to finish his breakfast and packing in peace, feeling in awe of his determination to carry on, to go out there with his camera and capture the important stories he shares with the world. He epitomises the very image of the truth-seeking journalist who will go out against the odds to get the story but his own story is, thankfully, exceptional. How many of us would have the fight and drive to react in the way?
Standing against torture
It’s a question I thought Nazeeha Saeed might be able to help answer. She became well-known for her stance against the torturers who held her for 13 hours in 2011 and now continues to report about Bahrain while also campaigning for the release of some of her colleagues still being held there.
Why did she want to continue as a journalist in such difficult circumstances?
“First of all it is my job and I don’t know anything else to do. Second I am giving my colleagues a push that, if anything happens we shouldn’t be weak and back down, that we need to continue and support each other to continue. That’s why we are having an advocacy project to support our nine colleagues in jail.”
Is there something in that feeling of being personally involved in the story? To be the named individual who is prepared to take on the authorities maybe? It would seem an aspect that that Salim Amin, a second generation media innovator, might have some insight into.
His father, the pioneering photojournalist Mohamed ‘Mo’ Amin once famously said :
I’m not afraid of the bullet with my name on it, but I don’t want the bullet that says ‘To whom it may concern’
Amin currently heads Nairobi’s media giant CameraPix which strives to maintain the legacy of his father and continues to produce the influential work that it is is renowned for.
Could he help to explain why anyone would be a journalist?
“Journalists have, I believe, a higher calling, they are people who are passionate who want to tell stories who feel it is their right to tell stories, to inform people of what is happening, around the world, to be a voice for those people who are unable to tell the world in very difficult situations and circumstances.
“For me the journalists are the bravest of the brave they are the people who really make a difference and, without them, there really wouldn’t be stories, no-one would know in the world what was going on. Proper journalists do it for the passion, I don’t think they have any financial or personal gain, it really is because they have a passion to tell stories.”
Of course here in the UK, the vast majority of journalists don’t suffer the terrible backdrop of a brutal regime like Bahrain to work within, or would ever want to seek out a life of doing “the bang bang” (as war reporting is often irreverently referred to).
But even here, the poor public esteem which the post phone-hacking country holds journalists in, together with tales of low pay and insecure contracts provides a very different set of challenges to those who choose to tell stories or do journalism.
Paying the bills
Bernadette Hyland, who writes regularly here at Contributoria, is one of those who creates stories but isn’t employed in a traditional media organisation. She commented on an earlier draft of this story to give me the benefit of her experience.
“For me the appeal of journalism is the urge to tell other people about something that I think is very important. It’s grounded in my politics and, although I do not have any journalistic training, I have over the years been involved in writing for and being part of publications that have had a political dimension. Creating a magazine (and today a blog) is an important part of any organisation which finds that (and this is on the increase) getting publicity for leftwing ideas or activities is almost impossible.
“I have always had another job, as there is no way that being left wing and an activist and a writer can pay the bills. I am not sure how anyone can have a career in journalism, the implication of which is a regular income, a pension and all the other benefits that we expect today as professional workers. It seems to me that the profession is reverting back to one that only people with a private income can pursue.”
So given that financial challenge, what’s the appeal of the job in 2014 Britain? Soon-to-be qualified NCTJ student and politics graduate Stewart Paterson is one of the next generation of journalists seemingly not put off by the issues Hyland has experienced. He explained the career’s appeal.
“Although I’m definitely interested in politics, I’ve never had any desire to become involved in government.
I chose a degree in journalism and politics because I liked the idea if being part of the ‘fourth estate’, keeping the activities of the powers that be transparent.
“However since starting my NCTJ I’ve found that news gathering in general is great, so I’m not looking for a career in just political journalism and longer. Honestly the training can seem quite intense at times. There’s a lot to learn - shorthand, public affairs, media law - before a publication will even consider hiring you. It’s very competitive so I’ll take a trainee position wherever I can get one.”
That competition for paid journalism jobs is one of the aspects of the current UK media scene which is very familiar to Alison Gow. A former daily newspaper editor and now head of the innovation team for the UK’s largest regional newspaper group Trinity Mirror, she sees firsthand many who still want to be journalists.
“The pay isn’t great but, put it this way, there’s certainly a more structured pay and progression in companies now than there was say 20 years ago.
“There are more jobs coming up that didn’t exist before. We’ve got people in our newsrooms who wouldn’t have been doing these jobs a couple of years ago - we’ve got social media editors, online content writers sport, online planning writers, a tourism writer on the North Wales Daily Post now, a completely new post. There are definitely more jobs for writers.
If your ambition, as a lot of people’s is, to write searing exposes of your local council until the Guardian takes you on - that may not be something that comes quickly for you
“But there’s better and more journalism being done now than there ever was in the days of everybody going down the pub of an afternoon. They were true, I’ve seen it and remember it, but they wouldn’t be talking to contacts, they’d be talking to each other and getting mashed before heading off into the darkness. How that helped the cause of journalism I do not know.
“Now they are in the office and working or out in the patch, then they go home and they are still on their social networks they still know what’s going on.”
At the end of these interviews with journalists, that sense of involvement, of inclusion and active engagement in the world around us seems to be a strong vein running through all of those I’ve spoken. The thinking that links them across continents, doing very different types of work.
The last word on this belongs to Duley. He neatly sums up the conclusion I’ve been seeking.
“It’s about storytelling for me. There are these incredible stories out there and I think I follow a tradition that started around camp fires, in caves around ten thousands of years ago and there’s an innate need for people to tell stories and to hear stories and I just love being part of that tradition and so I’ll carry on doing it.”
The fee for this article is being donated to The Frontline Fund.