It’s hard to summarise. I was in Kandahar, and I was on patrol, embedded with a group of American soldiers. I wasn't really interested in doing a story on people firing guns. My interest is the effect war has on people. So I was particularly interested in how the war was affecting these American soldiers. At that particular time more American soldiers were killing themselves than actually dying in combat. For me, that was an interesting psychological study. But if you’re going to be there you have to do everything that that group of soldiers does. So, we were out on patrol one day. We’d been ambushed in that place the day before and we knew that there was a risk of something happening. it was a very quiet moment, and the guys had just laid a perimeter around, and I turned to talk to one of them, and I just stepped on an IED.
The actual event itself, the only way you can describe it is the incredible shock. It’s kind of like diving into a frozen sea. Your breath is taken away from you, you lose all your bearings. The shock is the first thing that hits you. The incredible shock. Was it painful? Well, it’s a place I’ve never been to before and probably never will again. You can’t really describe it in sense of pain because, I can still trap my fingernail in the drawer and that will hurt more than anything else. It’s something beyond anything you can describe so it’s not really pain. It’s beyond pain.
It’s an overwhelming sensation throughout your body, your body is going into shock, doing a million crazy things, something beyond anything you’ve ever experienced. Without getting too philosophical, and I’m not a religious person but I can understand that idea of the early martyrs, of extreme suffering that almost elevates somebody beyond their mortal coil, to this point of almost ecstasy, a suffering bringing people close to God. I can understand where that idea comes from.
“It’s a place I’ve never been to before and probably never will again. You can’t really describe it in sense of pain. It’s beyond pain.”
The reason it’s hard to explain is because it’s also beyond any experience you could possibly imagine. I mean, my legs had literally been ripped off, so you could see the bone was sticking out. It’s not like your leg’s been cut, it’s literally been flayed off from the bone. Likewise, my arm was smashed to pieces and burning, yet I was lucky because I kept my consciousness. When your brain is scrambled like that I knew that I had to find my focus as fast as possible.
There was no point trying to work out whether I could sit up or move. I had no control over that. So I just went into myself and thought, Just focus on your breathing, try and control that, it’s the only thing you can control. Try to calm yourself down. Luckily, that worked. I was able to keep that focus through the whole experience.
I was speaking to this guy Chris Metz, the sergeant leading the patrol, having a practical conversation with him about packing up my laptop and making sure it got sent home. So, it’s funny how your brain starts to work on quite banal levels.
Once I got over the initial shock that I wasn’t dead I started to break things down, the fact that I still had one hand, that I could still see. One of the first questions I asked on the medevac helicopter was whether I still had my dick and I still had that. Weirdly, you start to work out, Well, this could be worse. It was like a stock-check. I remember thinking I still have my hand, I still have my eyesight. Therefore I can still be be a photographer.
It’s funny though. I was with my nephew the other day, watching Saving Private Ryan. I grew up on war films and people getting blown up and it’s weird. because I was watching it and I was going “Oh, fucking hell! Imagine that! Imagine having to go through that!” And my nephew suddenly said “Yeah, but you know, you’ve done that.” And it still like that for me. If I’m watching a war film I’ll still be like, “Fucking hell, That’s pretty scary. I don't know if I could cope with that.” It’s quite a strange thing to have happened and somehow it doesn't feel quite the same as watching a war film where people get blown up.
Find out more about Giles Duley’s photography here.