Culture TEDx

Favorites of 2012: The power of a flashbulb

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

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2012 was the year of radical openness at TED. In that spirit, while our office is closed for winter break, TED’s editorial staffers have selected their favorite talks of the year, giving you a peek into both our process and our personalities. We hope you enjoy..

TED editorial meetings are a flurry of sound. As our team gathers on Thursday afternoons to discuss what talks we want to run and how we want to frame them, the room becomes a bumper car arena of opinions. There are clever insights, gentle jokes, bouts of laughter and passionate appeals — always words, words, words. So we know that we’ve uncovered a truly special talk when the words dissolve and all that’s left in the room is the palpable energy of silence.

That’s exactly what happened the first time the editorial team screened Giles Duley’s talk from TEDxObserver.

“It’s a bit of a joke for the editor of a paper to choose a photographer to open a speaker event. We’re not renowned for our words. I spent the last 40 years behind a camera so I didn’t have to speak,” says Duley, who has photographed people surviving hopeless situations in South Sudan, Bangladesh and Ukraine. His powerful images build an intimacy between the subject and the viewer who are separated by many miles, yes, but also by the thinnest threads of circumstance.

Addressing an auditorium with two balconies full of expectant faces, Duley narrates his personal journey from a celebrity photographer who “always wanted to do something more ” to a documentarian with an eye for the forgotten and marginalized.

“When I worked as a music and fashion photographer, I always had the nagging feeling that there was something missing, that I wasn’t using my skills productively,” says Duley. “I gave up photography — I walked away from it completely — and started doing care work. As a care worker, I started looking after a young guy called Nick, who has autism — very severe autism.”

“Nick, living with Autism, 2008.”

Nick, living with Autism, 2006” by Giles Duley

It was in photographing Nick and trying to capture his experience of “living downstairs at a party” that Duley found his voice and mission — to tell untold stories through images.

In this talk, Duley shares the tales of several people he’s photographed in the years since — the Rohingya refugees and a group of street kids in Odessa. Each story is punctuated with his stunning, often heartbreaking, images.

And then comes Duley’s own story, hinted at with the bomb joke made in the first minute of his talk. In 2011, Duley was on patrol with 75th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army in Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). In that moment, Duley became the person surviving a horrifying circumstance, as someone in the group photographed him on the ground, fighting for life. He survived — but lost both of his legs and his left arm.

“At first, I was devastated by what had happened. I thought my work was over. [Nothing made] sense to me,” says Duley. “It was the stories I’ve documented that inspired me to get through the last year. To survive. To get back up on my new legs and to come tell their stories but also my own … To show that losing your limbs doesn’t end your life.”

Giles Duley self portrait

Duley’s words will punch anyone in the stomach. But for me, a journalist, they had an extra degree of resonance. Duley’s career took off photographing Oasis, Marilyn Manson and Lenny Kravitz and, like him, I started out at a magazine. (Jane, for those who remember it.) My first interviews were with starlets getting buzz for news movies and bands whose albums were weeks away from release. While I loved these interviews, inevitably a moment would come where they’d say, “People always ask that,” or where I’d read what I thought had been an illuminating anecdote repeated in another interview. These interviews were with people lucky enough to tell their stories — and have the world listen — on repeat.

As a young journalist, I pushed for opportunities to share stories that no one had heard. On occasion, I got the chance to. One of my first big features for the magazine was about a scam that students across the United States were experiencing. These students would see an ad for a small, career-focused college where they’d learn a highly-employable skill like computer programming or electrical engineering. They’d go to visit the school, and find themselves dazzled by the promise of a different life. They’d take out a sizable loan to attend the school. Then one day they’d arrive on campus — often a strip mall — to find that, literally, the school was no longer there. The owner had taken off into the night, and the student was stuck paying off the loan for an education they never received.

I interviewed nearly a dozen people who had experienced this. They came from largely underprivileged backgrounds, and not one of them had ever been interviewed before. Our interviews sprawled for hours, sometimes feeling close to therapy sessions. Some of them had been trying for years to get someone to listen to them and, with no response, they seemed amazed that anyone cared to tell their story. If there’s anything I learned from those conversations — not to mention the rise of Facebook and Twitter — it’s that it is a basic human need to be seen and listened to.

In most of these conversations, there was an understanding that I was a reporter — that I could write and shine a flashlight on the issue, but that there wasn’t much more I could do. Still, one night I got a call from a young woman who was more than $20K in debt. She was crying, in the middle of what sounded like a panic attack. “Please, please help me,” she begged.

I have rarely in life felt that powerless. Every lawyer, loan expert and education department employee I had interviewed for the article thus far had expressed sympathy, but told me that they had little hope that the people I was interviewing would ever be excused from their loans. All I had for them were … words.

In the years since that moment, I haven’t stopped covering difficult stories altogether. But I fully admit that I have shied away from them.

In his talk, Duley tells of going to the border of Burma and Bangladesh, to photograph the refugee camp were the Rohingya people “have been left to rot for 20 years.”

Rohingya's Refugees. Fatima, 10 with brother Noru. Noru has skin infections caused by malnutrition.

“The people there have been forgotten, so I thought it was important to go and document their stories. I arranged with a village elder that people would come along the next day and I would take portraits of all these people,” says Duley. “I put a white sheet up and started to take photographs. It was still dawn, but there were literally hundreds of people turning up with ailments and diseases — just a hopeless situation … I got in a bit of a panic because these people were coming up to me, desperate. I was trying to explain to the village elder that I was not a doctor and that I couldn’t help these people. He said, ‘This is important. These people know you’re not a doctor. But at least now someone is telling their story.’”

Words, images — visibility. They do matter. They don’t provide physical needs. But they do provide something deeper.

I can’t imagine how overwhelmed Duley must have felt in the camp that morning. A part of the incredible work he’s chosen is, on a regular basis, feeling tremendous sorrow for not being able to wave a magic wand and make things better for people. And yet, he does it anyway. Even after losing three of his limbs, this summer Duley returned to work, photographing the Paralympic Games. As he tells NBC News in this interview, “I’m myself again.”

This talk is truly a must-watch. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint why it didn’t get the views we would have guessed while sitting in that silent editorial meeting months ago. I suspect that this talk got glossed over because it is so difficult, churning up so many layers of empathy without providing an outlet to be able to do something. Or perhaps it comes down to technical reasons. Duley’s talk ran over a weekend — when we’ve noticed that viewers often skip new talks, instead watching talks on a specific subject that resonates with them. Perhaps it’s because the headline — “When a reporter becomes the story” — was moving to members of the editorial team, many of us with journalism backgrounds, but didn’t connect with a broader audience. Your guess is as good as mine.

All I have to say is: watch this talk. Duley crisscrossed the globe, searched his soul and made an unthinakble physical sacrifice to tell these stories. Now it’s your turn to hear them.