Thursday, 19 October 2017

War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy

War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy is a great poem with a really interesting and original concept at its heart. Carol Ann Duffy loves writing poems about characters and here she focuses on the character of a man whose job it is to enter conflict zones the photograph what he witnesses.

War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy


I always start my teaching of this poem by showing students this picture it's one of the most famous photographs taken over war zone it's the Vietnam War and we can see a number of terrified villagers fleeing in the aftermath of an attack on their village. The photograph tells a number of different stories centrally the story of the victims of the attack there's also the story of the soldiers who were on the road with them but also the story of someone outside the frame of the photograph itself that of the photographer who witnesses the fear and vulnerability of these terrified children and is caught in a terrible dilemma do I follow my natural human instinct and reach out to help these people or do I take the photograph and furthermore if the decision is to take the photograph as it was here then what is the lasting impact on the psychology of the photographer after he has returned home. The poem asks these questions and also considers the impact of these pictures on the audience of newspaper readers back home in a world which is completely alien to the one in which the photographer earns his living.

War Photographer

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.


The poem is written in the third person as a sort of poetic portrait of the war photographer at work. The first line sounds straightforward enough as Duffy states where the photographer is but the line is packed with meaning firstly he's in his developing studio a dark room but this image becomes a sort of metaphor for the darkness within the photographer's mind as he is finally alone and allowed to reflect the pictures he has taken. Duffey quickly establishes my serious tone with the slow irregular beat of that first line then the alliteration in line two connects the words spool with the word suffering this was a time before digital photography and so pictures were first captured on spools of film which then had to be developed and Duffy personifies these spools using the word suffering which also gives us our first indication of what might have been captured on them it's also worth thinking about the way that these are organized into ordered rows and what other things which might appear in this way such as gravestones. The next line further establishes the setting of the photographer in his darkroom with the slightly eerie glow of the red light now black-and-white films aren't damaged by red light which is why photographers use them to develop their pictures but Duffy isn't interested in the fundamentals of photography here and she draws attention to the red light again because she wants us to connect it with other ideas in order to generate deeper meaning now red as a color might be associated with things like blood anger danger but also with a sort of voyeurism which is present in red-light districts as if the photographs which have been captured or of such a personal and intimate nature. There is also something which feels quite wrong or quite disturbing when you look at them the public then employs a simile to compare the darkroom to a church and the photographer to a priest and in fact the final phrase of this stanza all flesh is grass is a quotation from the Bible that is a Catholic Church service and by connecting these images in the readers mind an idea is being developed of the serious and respectful attitude of the photographer. The list of place names in line6 Belfast Beirut Phnom Penh are all scenes of conflict and bloodshed which Duffy imagines the photographer might have visited.

The second stanza begins with the same matter-of-fact tone as the first he has a job to do and it marks one of the fundamental conflicts within the poem here's a man who is witnessing the most extreme of human circumstances but his job is to document and photograph what he sees in order to draw attention to the human experience of war not to get emotionally involved and this cool professionalism is evidenced by the fact that his hands did not tremble then. When he was taking the original pictures but in this stanza we first see evidence of the psychological impact on the photographer his hands do tremble as he begins to develop the photographs there's a clever piece of alliteration with solutions slop which helps us to imagine the sound coming from the trays as the fluid used to develop the photograph is moved backwards and forwards and this specific name for the repetition of s sounds is sibilance in the second half of this stanza. Duffy creates a contrast between the sort of everyday problems and difficulties that you or I might face which can suddenly disappear with a change in the weather and the extreme challenges faced by children growing up in conflict zones when you read that line the feet of running children there you can't help but be reminded of that photograph that I showed you at the beginning.

In stanza 3 the image captured by the camera starts to reveal itself and if you've ever taken a picture with a Polaroid camera then you'll understand why half-formed ghost which I've highlighted here is such an appropriate way to describe what the picture looks like at this partly developed point but there is extra the significance attached to the word ghost when you think that the person in the picture is in all likelihood dead and as the picture develops so the memories of that moment return to the photographer. He remembers a man and that the woman with him is his wife and she is crying now. Duffy leaves it for us to consider what might have happened but it isn't too much of a leap to conclude that the man is either dead or badly injured and here again we have the conflict that I mentioned earlier in that moment do you help or do you take the picture and this is why he sought approval without words he wants the woman in the picture to be okay with him taking it because he is trying to help by bringing her pain to the attention of the world. The photographer regards this as a duty something he must do the final image in this stanza is the blood of the injured man staining the ground and this is Duffy conveying to us the lasting impact of war that the country will be permanently stained by the suffering of the people okay so the previous stanza was about just one of the photographs that was taken at the beginning of the final stanza this one we learn that he has a hundred all detailing the same level of suffering a piece of personification which I've highlighted here which starts the stanza creates quite a nice structural link to the beginning of the poem where the spools of developing film were described as suffering now that the film is developed. They are described as Agony's in black and white the image of this large number of photographs all detailing the horrors of war is then juxtaposed with the cold realities of newspaper journalism in the next line where the editor picks out just a handful of them to be published in the Sunday paper this then means that all the other stories captured by the photographer will never be shared with the public and will be discarded but Duffy saves her most powerful criticism for the many thousands of people who will see these pictures and recognize the distressing nature of them their eyeballs prick with tears perhaps they even recognize that something must be done but this emotional response is short-lived it lasts for a matter of hours between the morning bath and pre-lunch beers and is then forgotten about meanwhile the photographer is back on a plane heading towards another place where he will witness and document another war and more of the same human misery.

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