‘War Photographer‘ begins in a very private setting, which is “In his darkroom,” which means a place of peace and tranquility. The man (photographer) has been to all the trouble spots of the world, such as “Belfast, Beirut, and Phnom Penh.” This shows the extent of unrest in the world. The photographer is then shown working in a familiar part of the world which is peaceful by comparison to the places mentioned, for example; “Rural England. Home again.”
This gives the impression of an idyllic setting, and this is where he belongs. When the poet says, “Fields which don’t explode beneath the feet,” the emphasis is again laid on the safety and peaceful life at home, shocking image, and contrast with the violence abroad. The photographer has returned to England from an assignment abroad.
Explore War Photographer
In ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy, the photographer finds himself alone in his darkroom. He notices as photographs develop before his eyes. He thinks of the differences between the places he has just visited and the place he calls home. He remembers the people in the photos and what they were doing when he was taking their images.
He recollects how he looked to one man’s wife for permission to take the photograph of him suffering. The photographer realizes that people are not influenced by his work for more than a short time. He knows that all of his work will be reduced to just a few pictures in a glossy magazine. Talking to himself, he says that nobody cares about either him or the people he shows in his photos.
War photographers are those real people who endanger their lives to take photographs of war and help people visualize the horrors of war anywhere in the world. The photos we see in Sunday supplements, embellishing headlines or posters are taken by these courageous people. Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘War Photographer’ depicts the poet’s opinions toward society and the agonies of war, in addition to the lack of interest of mankind toward it.
Moreover, Duffy wrote the ‘War Photographer’ being inspired by his friendship with Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths. Both of them were well-respected stills photographers, with a specialization in war photography. Duffy is immensely fascinated by what makes someone do such a job and how they feel about being in situations where a choice often has to be made between either helping or recording horrific events.
However, the poem also shows the poet’s views toward society and the agonies of war, along with the lack of interest of mankind toward it. In all, it gives the best picture of those photographers who endanger their lives to capture the disastrous scenes of war.
‘War Photographer’ consists of four stanzas and each stanza has six lines in it. The poet uses an interesting rhyme scheme in the poem. Except for the slant or imperfect rhymes, the poet uses the ABBC DD rhyme scheme. So, each stanza ends with a rhyming couplet. As an example, in the first stanza “rows” and “glows” rhyme together. And, “Mass” rhymes with “grass” in the last two lines. The lines of the poem get connected by the use of enjambment. There are some caesura and occasional use of pauses in the poem.
Apart from that, the poet uses the anapestic meter, iambic meter, and spondee in the poem. The poem also contains some trochaic feet. As an example, “Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh” contains trochaic feet or falling rhythm. This section sounds like military footsteps, significantly depicting the ambiance of war.
‘War Photographer’ contains several literary devices. Likewise, in the line, ‘spools of suffering set out,’ the poet uses alliteration as well as a metaphor wherein the harsh ‘S’ sound reminds us of the harsh world he operates in. In ‘as though this were a church and he a priest; he employs simile, which means how he sees himself and his mission – to show the truth and to convert people.
Besides, there is a use of Emotive (fields which don’t explode beneath the feet of running children, which means the innocent always suffer) and imagery (blood stained into foreign dust) which means Blood is often spilled and cheap in these places. The poet has made the skillful use of a short-direct sentence, such as ‘Something is happening,’ to create tension, a prolepsis, or anticipation.
‘War Photographer’ contains several themes. In this poem, the poet uses the themes of the brutality of war, destruction, death, terror, impassivity, and ignorance. The most important theme of the poem is the brutality of war. Through the pictures taken by the photographer, the poet presents how shocking the effect of war is. Even the pictures threaten the poetic persona of the poem. Moreover, the last stanza of the poem depicts the ignorance of mankind.
The poet criticizes the editors who aren’t even compassionate with those who capture the horrid scenes of war. Apart from that, the impassive outlook of his countrymen is present in these lines, “From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where/ he earns his living and they do not care.” However, the terrifying photographs along with the description of the photographer’s mental state collectively present the horrendous nature of war.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
Though the title is ‘War Photographer’, in reality, it brings to light the difference between “Rural England” and places where wars are fought (Northern Ireland, Lebanon, and Cambodia), between the indifference or comfort of the newspaper editor and its readers and the suffering of the people in the photographs. There is no name given to the photographer. He is anonymous and could be any of those who do the recording of war scenes. He is neither an observer nor a recorder of others’ lives. He is just an outsider (“alone/with spools of suffering”) who keeps moving between two worlds but doesn’t feel comfortable in anything.
Through the words like “ordered rows” of film spools, the poet may mean to suggest the way the photographer tries to bring into order what he has recorded, and interpret or make sense of it. The image also brings to mind the visions of a graveyard scene where the spools of the film are gravestones.
A simile where the poet compares the photographer to a priest represents his seriousness toward his job, and how by taking their photographs, he helps those who are helpless. His darkroom is the resemblance of a church wherein his red light is similar to a colored lantern. The poet has appropriately used this image here, as similar to a priest; he also gives sermons on how fragile we have become, and how short-lived our life has become.
The quotation, “All flesh is grass” belongs to the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, wherein the latter contrasts the shortness of human life with eternal religious truths. The poem also has a list of several places’ names wherein he says life is too short to be normal, due to wars only.
Thus, ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy discusses the aftermaths of war and death. War and Death are correlative as when there is war, there must be the death of human beings.
When the poet says, “The only light is red and softly glows,” he brings to light the connotations of danger and blood lost in the war but it may also relate to the light in the room wherein the photographer does the development of the photos that he has taken during the war.
Besides, there is a plethora of religious imagery in the poem, for example; “intone a Mass,” and “…this were a church and he a priest,” Here the meaning of ‘Intone a Mass’ is to recite a religious ceremony without any intonation.
He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands, which did not tremble then
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.
In the second stanza of ‘War Photographer’, when Carol Ann Duffy writes, “He has a job to do,” readers notice the photographer justifying his work. And this is when he comes in front of the true reality, and contradicts his calm nature while photographing. The fact that he is home in “Rural England” may also suggest why he finds his hands shaking, and why it is so personal.
The second stanza brings out the differentiation between the two shelves of the photographer. On his first shelf, he remains very calm, cool, and dedicated to his job. But when he comes back into his darkroom and starts developing the pictures, his hands start trembling and he is not calm like before. He sees the ghosts of dead soldiers and dead people in the prints of the photographs that he has developed. This means that the impact of the photographs doesn’t leave him even after he has arrived home.
The use of words like “Solutions” in the poem not only means the developing fluid in the trays, but it also means to suggest the idea of resolving the political problems which primarily cause war. Duffy also distinguishes the fields in England from those abroad – as if the photographer believes English fields are not minefields. This is shocking imagery, as he believes that land mines are explosive not under soldiers but under “the feet of running children”.
Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
In the third stanza of ‘War Photographer,’ Carol Ann Duffy creates a bizarre situation for the readers. She creates suspense, thrill telling that ‘Something is happening.’ She says the war photographs have now begun to come through onto the print in the tray of solutions. The poet once again takes the photographer to his painful memories. The photographs were taken in the war start appearing on the print like a half-formed ghost of the dead man’s photograph.
While developing the pictures, he sees the “half-formed ghost” of a man. This emotive language suggests how he is now seeing the soldiers die instead of than when he was taking their photographs. He thinks that everyone must know what is happening in the war, but at the same time, there is the depiction of doubt and guilt when the readers are told, “How the blood stained into foreign dust”.
The picture of the dead man’s wife also starts coming to his mind. He remembers her cries and thinks about how he was able to seek the approval of that dead man’s wife. Though getting her permission to take her dead husband’s photograph was tough enough, yet he could make it without speaking even a single word to her. This was a very traumatic situation for the photographer. It is as if the wife should allow him to record the event while the bloodstains “into foreign dust”.
A hundred agonies in black and white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.
In the last stanza of ‘War Photographer’, the poet talks about the process of photo selection by the photographer’s editor, the mixed reactions of the readers when they will read it, and the photographer’s agony. The photographer says that though he has got a collection of hundreds of war photographs, the editor will just pick five to six photos, as per his requirements, and publish them with the story covered relevant to the war.
Through the use of a phrase like “A hundred agonies”, the poet brings to light the contents of the photos and it depicts how devastating and important war is even in the harmless form of a photo. However, the readers are very well aware of the fact that merely a small selection would be opted for having an impact on the readers. “The reader’s eyeballs prick,” but it isn’t permanent as the readers would soon shift their focus from here to something else “pre-lunch beers”.
Moreover, the poet says that the photographer knows that it is going to be very late for the readers to see the photos taken by him, but they may surely look at the photographs on Sunday morning either while having a bath or a beer at lunchtime.
Of course, there may be some readers who will bring tears in their eyes after looking at the photos, but the photographer knows it well that they will never understand the sufferings of the victims and the pain the photographers had while taking these war photographs. The readers are just confined to their small world, full of their worries and needs. They can never be like the photographer who himself has seen the difference between the world of war and the world of baths and beer. In the last two lines, the photographer looks at the place from an aero-plane, ‘he earns his living and they do not care.’
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy, on May 1st, 2009, became the UK’s twentieth Poet Laureate. She is the most admired and recognized poet in Britain. Through her poems, she appeals to those who usually don’t like to read poetry and they appear on the national curriculum.
Like ‘War Photographer’, one of Carol Ann Duffy’s best poems, here is a list of a few poems that present the horrid pictures of war.
- War Photographer by Carole Satyamurti – This poem by Carol Satyamurti centers around a war photographer and how he visualizes the war.
- The Next War by Wilfred Owen – Like his other poems such as ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Futility’, in this poem, Wilfred Owen, one of the famous British war poets, presents the dark and cynical images of war.
- Does it Matter? by Siegfried Sassoon – In this poem, Siegfried Sassoon describes the physical and mental injuries soldiers receive on the battleground.
- John Brown by Bob Dylan – In this poem, Bob Dylan talks about the futility of war from the perspective of John Brown, a wounded soldier.
You can read about 10 of the Best War Poems here.