Here are some notes, analyses, and annotations for the poem ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy. It’s a fascinating poem! Although I don’t always like Duffy’s poems, this is my absolute favorite of hers; I really love how it’s so personal and thought-provoking.
My analysis is tailored towards the Edexcel IGCSE Literature Poetry Anthology and the AQA GCSE English Literature Power and Conflict Cluster, but it’s useful for anyone studying the poem at any level, on any exam board (including OCR, CIE / Cambridge, CCEA, WJEC / Eduqas).
Thanks for reading! If you find this document useful, you can take the full Edexcel IGCSE Poetry course.
Here’s a full AQA GCSE Power and Conflict Poetry Anthology List.
“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…”Carol Ann Duffy
(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright)
War Photographer – Poem Analysis
Dark room — a dark enclosed space that is used to develop photographs (non-digital photographs are sensitive to light, so they have to be processed in the dark, with only a low red light to see by).
Intone a Mass — to deliver a speech or sermon for a Mass in a flat, non — variable tone of voice. A Mass is a Roman Catholic ceremony of worship where Catholics receive the Eucharist — they eat a wafer and drink wine, which symbolically represents the body and blood of Jesus Christ respectively (this process is called ‘transubstantiation’). In the poem, the type of Mass being referred to in the first stanza would be a funeral service.
Agonies — feelings of extreme pain.
Impassively — showing or feeling no emotions.
Spool — a circular device that holds film or photography tape.
Sunday’s supplement — an extra small publication that’s sent along with the regular newspaper on Sundays for people to read, usually for leisure and entertainment.
Stanza 1: The speaker tells us of a photographer who is alone in his dark room, developing photographs that he has recently taken. He sets the photographs (which are of people suffering in war) out in rows to look at them, and this process is compared to a priest preparing his Mass. The final line lists cities that were sites of war — the Irish and British conflict in Belfast, the civil war in Lebanon (Beirut), and the civil war in Cambodia (Phnom Penh), before commenting that ‘all flesh is grass’, a phrase which reminds us that human life is transient and that after a death we all return to the earth.
Stanza 2: We’re told that the photographer has a job to complete — when he was taking the photos his hands didn’t tremble, but they do now. He’s back home in Rural England, the English countryside is calm and peaceful, any worries he may have can here be fixed with good weather — unlike the countries where he took the photographs, where the fields exploded as children ran through them, away from conflict.
Stanza 3: This stanza shifts focus to a particular photograph that’s developing before his eyes — he remembers the man and his wife, how they were suffering and he took a photograph of them because ‘someone must’, despite the fact that he didn’t ask them directly if it was ok to document their pain. It says that ‘he sought approval’ but ‘without words’, so perhaps they just accepted that he was taking photos, or they were in too much pain to truly notice or communicate with him. The final line may refer to the blood of this couple, or the blood of others at the scene where they were photographed — it provides us with a lasting shocking image of blood-stained earth in the aftermath of war and conflict.
Stanza 4: We have another focal shift in the final stanza, which zooms out to ‘a hundred agonies’ that the photographer documented, as we realize this man and his wife were just one small example of the suffering endured by many. The photographer’s editor has to pick only a few of these images to show to the public in a Sunday newspaper supplement. The reader of this supplement will be briefly upset by the images, in between taking a bath and going for a beer with their friends. We’re left with a final image of the photographer, who stares emotionlessly out of the airplane window at the land below, knowing it is a country torn by conflict, where he’s being sent to earn money by taking photographs.
The speaker uses a third-person omniscient voice to shift between the photographer and other figures in the poem — the husband and wife in the photograph, the editor of the supplement, the readers who experience the images through the media.
These figures are all unnamed — to show they represent general people, rather than specific individuals, which gives a wider picture of society as a whole and how it reacts to distant war. There is a cynical tone expressed in the poem, where Duffy comments on the ironic and insensitive way in which we consume media — only seeing a small proportion of what really goes on in any war or conflict, and only experiencing even that for a few seconds in the relative comfort of our lives. The effect is to make us think more deeply about the ethics of war and war documentation — the photographer himself is only doing it for ‘a living’, to make money — and also to make us really appreciate the comfort and stability that we live in, our own worries and troubles are so minor in comparison to the people suffering in the middle of conflicts.
Sibilance — ‘spools of suffering’ uses sibilance to draw attention to the images that are recorded on the spools of photography film, the ‘s’ repeated also imitates a sharp hissing or spitting sound — perhaps to imitate the sense of pain and suffering that the photographer’s subjects went through.
Simile — ‘as though this were a church’ makes us think of the religious and spiritual aspects of war, given that many wars are fought over religious beliefs, as well as the way in which the media in the modern world functions as a quasi-religion — people become obsessed with certain stories and hold strong opinions and beliefs, especially regarding the politics of conflict. The simile is extended in the phrase ‘he/a priest preparing to intone a Mass’, making it seem as if the photographer’s function in the modern world is similar to the traditional function of a priest — to make people think more deeply about spiritual and philosophical questions, and perhaps to explore or explain the reasons for evil and suffering in the world. This also creates a solemn tone that continues throughout the first stanza, where we realise that many of the photographs will now be documenting the dead — a sentiment that is reinforced in the final short sentence ‘All flesh is grass’, a quotation from the Old Testament in the Bible that reminds us that human lives are very short and fragile.
Colour symbolism — we are told that ‘the only light is red’, suggesting that the colour is significant (beyond the practical reason of it being the only possible way to light a darkroom without spoiling the photos). Red could symbolise passion, or blood and violence, and it perhaps foreshadows the later visual image of ‘blood stained into foreign dust’.
Holophrasis — Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. — this is a technique where a whole idea or phrase is expressed just using a single world — Duffy compresses the wars, conflicts and political and social turmoil of these locations into single words or names of cities where the wars took place — in some ways it is powerful how just the name of a city can conjure up so many associations and so much history (the plosive ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds hint towards violence and explosions), but in others it seems reductive — like it is only a small snapshot of what goes on; we don’t know enough to properly respect and understand what went on in these places, a few photographs in a newspaper in an article about the place isn’t going to do it justice, and yet that’s all most of us ever experience of modern war and conflict — very few of Duffy’s readers will have experienced and understood what it means to live in a state of war first hand.
Double entendre — ‘solutions slop in trays’ — the word ‘solutions’ is used ironically to refer literally to the developing liquid that is used for processing photographs (which is called ‘a solution’), and also to the idea of solving or finding a solution that will end the wars.
Synecdoche — ‘his hands, which did not tremble then/ though seem to now’ — the ‘hands’ are used to represent the whole person of the photographer (a technique we call ‘synecdoche’), as we realise that they are trembling finally as he looks over the horrific images he has captured. The ‘tremble’ is ambiguous, however — it could be because he is concentrating very hard on getting the photos to develop properly, as this takes a lot of effort. Otherwise, we may interpret that he has finally become emotionally impacted by his job and is starting to feel sorry for the people he met on his travels through war-torn countries.
Metaphor — ‘a half-formed ghost’ — this visual image describes the face of the man as it develops on the photograph, but it also may suggest that his soul or character had been half destroyed by the stress and fear of living amidst conflict. The compound adjective ‘half-formed’ perhaps also refers to the photographer himself, suggesting that the memory of the man is half-formed in his mind and starting to come back to him, as he remembers other things about his particular situation.
Assonance — the final lines contain many words that half-rhyme ‘stare’ ‘aeroplane’ ‘ where’ ‘care’ and ‘earn’, repeating sounds that convey a sense.
ABBACC rhyme scheme — there is a regular rhyme scheme to each stanza, perhaps showing the regularity and monotony of the photographer’s work, which he seems to view as similar to any other job rather than understanding it has special importance. There are two couplets within this rhyme scheme — BB and CC. Couplets generally signify harmony and peace, as well as love and connection. The disrupted ‘A’’ rhyme may then be interpreted as symbolizing the disharmony and separation that war creates within families, something which is explored further in the description of the man whose wife ‘cries’ as ‘blood’ spills on the land. The man is a ‘stranger’ to the photographer, which again emphasizes the lack of connection.
Sestets — the poem is set out regularly in sestets (six-line stanzas) — perhaps to show the repetitive regularity of the photographer’s job, which is so comfortable and almost numbing in comparison with the chaos of the subjects he depicts in his work.
Short sentences — some sentences in the poem seem abrupt and almost too short, they disrupt the flow of the poem and make us feel shocked or stunned. For example, the sentence ‘He has a job to do..’ seems short and matter-of-fact, almost as if it’s revealing the photographer’s own thoughts and attitude to his work — it’s just a job that pays money, like any other, he has learned to detach himself emotionally from the horrors that he sees and documents with his lens.
Enjambment — enjambment is often used in the poem to create an expectation, which is then disrupted or embellished in the second line. One example is ‘A hundred agonies in black and white / from which his editor will pick out five or six’, the numbers are used in almost an antithesis — we realize that there are hundreds of photographs, and thousands or more who suffer, and of all these stories and lives that are disrupted only a few will make it to the newspaper, and even then people will read about them for a few moments, look at their pictures a couple of times, and then go back to their daily lives. Duffy aims to create a sense of frustration and perhaps guilt in the reader, as well as a wider awareness of how lucky we are to live peacefully and comfortably in our countries, as well as exposing the way in which media affects a lot of people’s lives and opinions, but really is only able to give us a small snippet of information about any given subject.
We adopt a voyeuristic attitude to war and conflict — the term ‘voyeurism’ in this sense refers to the idea that people almost enjoy or are entertained by learning about the war, death, and suffering, in a gratuitous sense. We read about it in ‘supplement[s]’, as if it’s an add-on to our lives, perhaps something to talk about over ‘drinks’ with friends. We may feel impacted briefly by it, but ultimately it makes no large difference to our daily routines, and we do nothing to change the situation for the better. Duffy criticizes those who read the newspapers and learn about far off wars from the comfort of their own stable environments. Though she also acknowledges that we are moved by the stories and situations and respond with ‘tears’, ultimately the effect of the poem is to leave us both saddened and frustrated but ultimately powerless as we realize that very few of us are in a position to directly help those involved in the conflict. However, the poem may have additional positive effects such as encouraging readers who engage with global conflicts to think more about donating their time or money to charitable causes that can alleviate suffering in the wars.
The reality of war is almost too large and complex to fully understand — a further sense of powerlessness is created through the use of general terms — we do not even know the names of any individuals in the poems, and therefore cannot help them, those who suffer are caught in a political and/ or religious conflict that is much larger than themselves, and so even they cannot fully understand why the war is occurring or how to change it. There are ‘hundreds’ of photographs from a range of locations, which creates an almost dizzying effect when the reader tries to think about it. The use of multiple locations that the photographer visits suggest that the poem is less about one specific war, and more about human nature, questioning why these atrocities occur and recur throughout history, why we are always fighting and destroying one another.
All wars are an expression of the potential humans to do evil — Following on from the previous idea, there is a sense that the poem explores humans and their capacity for evil as much as it comments on war specifically — the references to a church in the first stanza suggest that the poem intends to open up more spiritual and philosophical questions about our species, rather than directly speaking about one specific war or incident (as most newspaper articles on war will do).
Wars — There is a non-specific context for the wars being described, although we know that the photographer is working in the pre-digital age as he has to develop the photographs by hand. Duffy references several wars together, even though these were in separate locations, different time periods, and created by different causes (religious, cultural, and political). The photographer has visited all these places and become numb to the suffering and the reasons behind it. Here are the contexts for the separate wars:
Belfast — the city which formed the center of the Northern Ireland Conflict (1968–98), a complex political and religious conflict that lasted for 30 years, with many underlying causes — such as the tension between Catholics and Protestants, the wish to remain part of the UK or to separate Ireland and become independent, fights between the British government and Irish nationalists, and more.
Beirut — the capital city of Lebanon, where the Lebanese Civil War took place between 1975–1990. A Civil War is a conflict that happens within a country, so people within Lebanon were fighting amongst each other because of their religious, political, and cultural beliefs — in this case, there was tension between Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims.
Pnom Penh — the capital city of Cambodia, where the Cambodian Civil War took place between 1967–75. Though the war took place between Cambodian citizens — the Khmer Rouge, a political Communist Party and the government of Cambodia — many other countries also became involved in the conflict — the US on the government’s side, and Vietnam on the Khmer Rouge’s side, so this escalated the scale of the war. The US at the time was fighting in Asia to prevent the spread of communism, as it is a strong capitalist country. Therefore, we can see how political beliefs and strong ideologies cause further war, violence, and suffering and escalate the number of people involved in any conflict — in most wars, the people on each side fully believe that they are right and fighting honorably for a better future.
The poem was published in 1985, so the Lebanese Civil War and the Northern Ireland Conflict were still ongoing at this time.
Carol Ann Duffy was friends with a war photographer, so her poem is inspired by directly speaking with him about his experiences.
Bear in mind that for both AQA and Edexcel, you have to write a comparative essay, so always make sure to learn your themes/ideas and attitudes in detail and think about which poems connect well or strongly conflict with each other.
- Numbness / Apathy
- News and Media
- Spirituality in the modern world
AQA Power and Conflict: the full course is coming soon, but in the meantime take a look at our other English and Literature courses here.
Thanks for reading! If you find this document useful, you can take the full Edexcel IGCSE Poetry course.