Carol Ann Duffy made history in 2009 when she became the first woman to hold the post of Poet Laureate. War Photographer is a poem about war and its effects on civilians. The poem discusses the lasting effects of war trauma on those photographers who take pictures of famine and battle. It also deals with the broader ethical issue of whether observing and photographing war rather than helping is the right thing to do. It makes us question, along with the photographer, the worth of risking life to document conflict around the world. Through the newspaper business, money is being made with these pictures of human suffering.
This poem was written by Carol Ann Duffy and published in 1985. The subject of the poem is a war photographer, used to taking pictures of graphic and disturbing conflicts around the world. It is a poem written in the pre-digital camera age and so deals with an earlier form of photography in which pictures were taken from rolls of film and had to be developed manually. Here the photographer has returned to his darkroom to process the images he has taken in conflict zones. He is clearly suffering from some form of PTSD but the poem deals not just with his feelings but the wider issues of journalism in war situations.
The poet talks about Phnom Penh where the Cambodian genocide occurred. The poem also mentions fields that explode ‘beneath the feet of running children’. This might be in reference to a famous image from the Vietnam War of young children running from a napalm attack. It is one of the most famous war photographs in history.
The poem is set out in four stanzas, equal in length, and follows a regular rhyme scheme. This reflects the ‘ordered rows’ of his photos in the dark room as he waits for his pictures to develop. At ‘Something is happening’ in stanza 3, a clear volta occurs. The photos begin to develop and the focus shifts to individual images. While the actions of processing the film happen throughout the poem, his thoughts continue to return to the scenes he has witnessed while taking his pictures.
In the last stanza we see the way the photographer feels about the public who will view his pictures in ‘Sunday’s supplement’. Each one of the places where he witnessed terrible events is punctuated with caesura: ‘Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh.’ There is further use of caesura in the simple openings to the second and third stanzas. These are matter of fact references to the job he is doing by developing his film. The full stops may indicate the end of ordinary life in these conflict areas, the brutal harshness of the world in those places.
Ideas and Language
The poem is full of emotive language. The nature of the photographer’s work is immediately apparent when we learn that he is developing ‘spools of suffering’. The photos he produces are ‘a hundred agonies’. The photographer is ‘finally alone’, showing us that he has hardly had time to be alone with his thoughts while away collecting images. Now he has time to think and his hands ‘which did not tremble then’ seem to once back in ‘Rural England’. We are left to wonder whether the trembling is from stress and PTSD symptoms or from anger at the indifference he perceives around him.
The photographer has clearly put his own emotions aside in order to take these pictures, as he ‘has a job to do’. The photographer remembers how, on seeing a man dying, he sought permission to take photographs, to do ‘what someone must’. He sees his role as documenter of the conflicts as important but still struggles with the way his pictures are received by the public. The pictures contrast with the ‘Rural England’ he has returned to and there is a sense that the readers of the newspaper supplement where his pictures will appear are apathetic to the issues shown in the photos. This is known as compassion fatigue (the inability to process images appropriately and empathetically owing to the sheer volume of news seen).
He has taken images of ‘a hundred agonies’ and his editor will only pick out five or six to put in the Sunday supplement that people will read. Although he feels the reader’s ‘eyeballs’ will ‘prick with tears’ this will only be temporary: ‘between the bath and pre-lunch beers’. The word ‘prick’ reminds us of the phrase ‘pricking the conscience’, it is neither a deep nor abiding wound/feeling. In the last line he stares ‘impassively at where he earns his living’. This seems to reference him flying away on yet another trip to a conflict zone. He is emotionally cold to his homeland and, in the final phrase, he notes that ‘they do not care’.
Religious imagery makes us see the seriousness of the photographer’s work. Duffy speaks of the glowing red light as ‘though this were a church’. She imagines the photographer in the guise of a priest ‘preparing to intone a Mass’ giving the production of the photographs the solemnity of a religious act. In particular the reference to ‘Mass’ and the sombre nature of the subject matter makes the reader think of a funeral service.
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