Analysis of “War Photographer” Poem by Carol Ann Duffy

War Photograph“War Photographer” by Carol Ann Duffy was originally published in “Standing Female Nude” in 1985. The poem speaks of the challenges war photographers face in having to deal with the horrors of war while not being able to help fight.

Duffy wrote this poem in honor of her friend who was a war photographer. She looks at the difficulties of being at war, coming home, and dealing with ordinary life.

Let’s take a quick look at a summary of Carol Ann Duffy’s “War Photographer” and then have a look at a line-by-line analysis.

Summary

“War Photographer” is a war poem describing both the horrors of war and the toll it takes on even the photographers. The poem starts with the photographer back in his studio developing photographs. As he is working, his hands start to tremble as he remembers some of the gruesome details of what he saw. Afterwards, he gets back on an airplane and as he is flying away, he thinks about how possibly none of it matters.

Analysis

Title: War Photographer
Style: Free style, but written in six-line stanzas with an ending-rhyming couplet
Theme: War
Tone: Suffering
Rhyme scheme: Ending rhyming couplet at end of each stanza

Line-by-line Analysis and Figurative Language

    • spools of suffering – The film roles of images of war
    • The only light is red and softly glows – She uses the image of “red” for several reasons. 1) Photographers in fact to use red lights. 2) To help compare to a church. 3) To give us an image of blood.
    • as though this were a church and he / a priest preparing to intone a Mass – A simile to compare his process of creating photos to that of holding a church service. This was likely done to show the importance of the photographers work and the thought process he has.
    • All flesh is grass. – A quote from Isaiah 40:6. The phrase means that human life is transitory.
    • He has a job to do – He can’t be too emotional or let his thoughts stray, he must do his work.
    • Home again / to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel – He is glad to be home and deal with normal pains of life.
    • running children in a nightmare heat. – This could be a reference to the famous photograph of children running away from a napalm attack in Vietnam. That photo is seen to have helped end the war.
    • Something is happening. A stranger’s features / faintly start to twist before his eyes, – The film is developing and almost ready.
    • a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries / of this man’s wife – Duffy uses “ghost” here to describe the photo in order for us to have a glimpse of the horrors of war. It reminds the photographer of death.
    • which did not tremble then / though seem to now – He wasn’t shaking when he took the photograph, but he is shaking now.
    • A hundred agonies in black and white / from which his editor will pick out five or six – There are a hundred photographs taken in black and white but only five or six will be published.
    • The reader’s eyeballs prick / with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers. – The readers of the newspapers will cry when they see the photographs, but they will still be in their comfortable lives away from war.
    • From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where / he earns his living and they do not care. – The war photographer is leaving again to go to another war zone. Duffy states the photographer is doing his job and sacrificing his mental health, yet the readers of the newspaper will see the photos and forget soon after, living their lives like any other day. She uses this term possibly in contrast to the earlier one about the children running from napalm. Have we viewers become too accustomed to seeing death? Why did that photo matter but the new ones don’t?

Poem: “War Photographer” by Carol Ann Duffy

In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands, which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.
Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
A hundred agonies in black and white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.

Reader’s Reaction

“War Photographer” is a fantastic poem written by the lovely Duffy. She uses imagery, sounds, memories, and much more to help emphasize the suffering of the photographer. It allows us to live in his life for just a moment and feel what he feels and see what he sees. Overall this is a great work of art.

Gary R. Hess

Gary was born and raised on a small farm in rural Kansas. Today, he is teaching various nationalities English in Southeast Asia. Get his newest poetry eBook here.