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War Photographer: Power and Conflict Analysis

War Photographer was written by Carol Ann Duffy and published in 1985. It was partly inspired by the photographer Nick Ut. One famous picture he took showed a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl in distress, running from her village after it had been hit with a napalm bomb.

This poem was written before digital cameras were widely used. For film cameras, photographers needed to insert spools of film before taking photographs. Traditionally, photographers would develop photographs in a darkroom (typically lit with red or amber light) to process the light-sensitive photographic materials effectively.

Poem Summary

A war photographer develops photographs in his darkroom. He thinks about how safe life in England feels compared to war-torn countries. As a picture develops, he remembers the pain and suffering of the people in it. He thinks that only a few of his images will be used in newspapers. Also, he imagines that the readers will be momentarily saddened by them, but will soon go back to focusing on their own lives.

The poem’s key message:

The poet shows that those who don’t live in countries at war cannot fully comprehend the horrors that take place. People are more concerned about their own lives than those in a distant land.

Language

  • Duffy uses imagery of pain and suffering to show the effects of war. The photographer calls his photographs “spools of suffering” and “A hundred agonies in black and white”. These lines show the many pictures he has taken of people in physical or mental torment.
  • Imagery is used to show the awful memories that the photographer has. As the photograph develops, it becomes a “half-formed ghost”. It could be the half-formed memory of this incident that haunts him. However, it could also suggest that the man in the photograph is dead.
  • After considering the different war zones he has visited, the photographer states: “All flesh is grass.” This is a phrase that originates from the Bible. It means that all life is temporary and limited. Having witnessed so many deaths, the photographer becomes very aware of the fragility of life.

Structure

  • The tone becomes darker and more disturbing in the third stanza as the photograph develops. The image of the dead man in the picture is difficult for the photographer to cope with.
  • He becomes angry in the fourth stanza as he considers how people don’t care about the victims of war in other countries. 

Form

  • It is written in the third person, present tense.
  • Each stanza follows the same rhyme pattern (ABBCDD). Every three lines, a rhyming couplet follows an unrhymed line. This puts emphasis on the lines that aren’t rhymed, such as “he is finally alone” and “A hundred agonies in black and white”.
  • There is an internal rhyme: “The reader’s eyeballs prick/ with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.” The link between “tears” and “beers” mocks the readers’ lack of genuine sadness.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
The effects of warThe photographs are evidence of the death and suffering that happens in war. The ease of life in England is compared to the disturbing image of “running children in a nightmare heat” (a reference to a famous photograph by Nick Ut). The fact that children are put through such pain and terror shows the devastating effects of conflict.
MemoriesIt is implied that the photographer suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the awful sights he has witnessed. His hands “tremble” as he develops the photographs because he fears the memories that will be brought back to him.
AngerThe photographer is bitter about the apathy (lack of care) that most people show about deaths that happen on “foreign dust”. He imagines how a reader’s eyes will “prick with tears” rather than fully crying. “Prick” implies a brief, sharp sensation, much like how a pinprick is sudden but fleeting. When contrasted with the casualness of “pre-lunch beers”, Duffy might be highlighting the temporary nature of the reader’s sympathy.

They might momentarily feel the sting of emotion, but this is quickly overshadowed by the mundanity and comfort of their daily lives.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“spools of suffering set out in ordered rows”Duffy contrasts the orderly arrangement of photographs with the chaotic suffering that comes from war.
“half-formed ghost”The photographer sees a dead man appear as the photograph develops. This brings back disturbing memories for him.
“they do not care”The last words of the poem savagely attack people in the wider world who don’t show enough care for those in war-torn countries.