War Photographer By Carol Ann Duffy

The war photographers are those real people who endanger their lives to take the photographs of war and help us (readers) 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.

The poem begins in a very private setting, that 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.

War Photographer By Carol Ann Duffy


Ideas & Content in War Photographer

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. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, War Photographer, can be read in full here.


Techniques Used in War Photographer

In the line ‘spools of suffering set out’ the poet uses alliteration/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 skillful use of a short-direct sentence, such as ‘Something is happening,’ to create tension, anticipation.


War Photographer Analysis

First Stanza

In his dark room he is finally alone


a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

Though the title of this poem is “War Photographer”, in actuality, it brings to light the difference between “Rural England” and places where wars are fought (Northern Ireland, the 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.

In 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 actually 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.


Second Stanza

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays


to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

In the second stanza, when Carol Ann Duffy writes, “He has a job to do,” we (readers) notice the man (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.

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 actually is happening in 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”.

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”.

The second stanza brings out the differentiation between the two shelves of the photographer. On his first shelf, he remains very calm, cool and y dedicated toward his job. But when he comes back 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 with 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”.


Third Stanza

Something is happening. A stranger’s features


without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

In the third stanza of War Photographer, the poet creates a very strange 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 taken in the war starts appearing on the print like a half-formed ghost of the dead man’s photograph.

The picture of the dead man’s wife also starts coming to his mind. He remembers her cries and thinks 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 really 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”.


Fourth Stanza

A hundred agonies in black and white


From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.

In this 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. 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 own 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.’


Final Comments

The poem, War Photographer is one of my best poems. The poem not only explores the gory results of war, but it also talks about the internal conflict going on in the heart and mind of the photographer who takes war-photographs. 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.


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. Duffy wrote the poem, 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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's your thoughts? Join the conversation by commenting
We make sure to reply to every comment submitted, so feel free to join the community and let us know by commenting below.

Get more Poetry Analysis like this in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get new poetry analysis updates straight to your inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

  • Avatar igor says:

    send me more

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      The site is updated weekly – so keep returning for more. Also please feel free to sign up for our newsletter.

  • Avatar atef says:

    this poem can go with the topic of coursework (places)

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thanks, that’s a good suggestion.

  • Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
    Scroll Up