War Photographer – Carol Ann Duffy

War Photographer – 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.


I love the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, from Salome to Miss Havisham, she is always there with a point to make and a certain style in which to do it. This poem is no different either.

It we adopt a title theory attitude to it, then we see the title and we expect it to be about a man or woman who has seen war torn situations and has come home and is getting to grips with life back in civilian homecomings. Or we expect it to be set in a war torn situation, mentioning bombings and the likes, the brutality of what they are photographing. If you watch Full Metal Jacket, although for the younger audience that might be a bad idea just yet, then you will get the idea.


But then we get to the poem and we see the setting and the brutality all rolled into one short and quite poetic style. Following a rhyme scheme of abb abb and a certain flourish of the pen, what Duffy writes about is a man who has returned home from a war torn place and is finally in his dark room. That dark room in line one is symbolic, in a way, of safety. It is the only place he feels real safety because of his job. It is the only place on the planet where he feels totally in control with the elements and liquids needed to create the quality photographs he does.

The poem shows us that the man is in his dark room, alone. It is a solitary lifestyle, the life of the old fashioned film developer. It is different now because we use digital cameras which can upload onto the internet straight away, but back then, in the glorious days of the 35mm film that you had to be extra careful with, you had to be in the darkness with “spools of suffering” in his case, spread out before him. Each photograph that such a man or woman takes is likely to be one that shows the horrors of warfare. It is certainly a job I would not want and I am a keen photographer myself and a former soldier.

The fact that there are “ordered rows” shows us that here is a man who is meticulous in what he is doing. Red light softly glows around him and the image of the priest in church is not lost on this reader, because in church, at times, we use lights to signify certain things. It helps to create a mood of sombre reflection to use tea time candles, for example. In this case, the red symbolizes blood that has been shed as he has captured the image for posterity. He is in a way, performing his macabre mass over his bench where all these liquids are laid out in trays ready for use.


The use of the city names of “Belfast. Beirut” and “Phnom Penh” are all meant to reflect something of the horror of modern guerrilla warfare. For those not in the know, Belfast refers to the ‘Troubles’ that were had there between Catholic and protestant at the time in Northern Ireland when the British Army tried to maintain peace, only for terrorist bombings to take place in Belfast and elsewhere on a regular basis. The use of Beirut as a reference shows us an image from a time in the Middle East when the troubles they had were based, for a time, in that city, where Arab fought Jew and Muslim fought Jew and Christian together. The atrocities carried out were regularly photographed by war correspondents.

The title itself, of this poem, speaks for itself. This is a man who “has a job to do.” That much is simple for us all to see and what we see as he does it, using his “slop in trays” is a man who is focusing on what is before him, rather like he would when taking the photograph in the first place. After all, when we frame a photograph with our camera, what do we do? We lift the camera or the phone to our eye height, make sure everything we want is centred and in view in the frame and then we press the shutter to get the best picture. We make sure all is not blurred and we make sure that the final product will be a memory for us to remember. This is what I did recently when I went to the Isle of Man for the TT bike racing. I have lots of memories now, to keep looking at, but this man’s memories are ones that are far more violent and malevolent than mine.

He, like me, is “home again” in “rural England” where the only pain is the “ordinary pain” that we face from day to day, but he has to live with that which he has seen through his camera lens. That cannot be easy, when you think about it. The places he goes to when he is home do not “explode beneath [his] feet” or cause him the kind of “nightmare heat” that he is now used to. This reaction in him is what we call today, PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and requires intensive therapy to help you get over the grief or horror you have witnessed.

Let me give you an example from real life!


Imagine coming home from a war zone like Iraq. Imagine it being near to November 5th. Then imagine sitting in your Mum and Dad’s house, aged 23 and an almighty great firework goes off with a terrific bang outside. What would you do? One of my ex students hit the floor when this happened, put his hands over the back of his neck and shouted, “take cover” as if he was calling to his comrades. His reaction was instinctive. Now, in the poem, we see the photographer doing the same thing as something begins to happen and “a stranger’s features faintly start to twist before his eyes,” as if he is seeing some “half formed ghost.” This is a vision of horror akin to that of the men in the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen and shows the nastiness of warfare in all its grievous evil. Not one of us would survive the hell that such an image would bring. We would all be affected in one way or another.

Then the memories kick in and he begins to hear “the cries
of this man’s wife,” as she sees the horror of the moment and how she seeks “approval without words,” in silent movements of the arms to do something for her dying family member who is at her feet, blood stained in the dirt of the day in a “foreign dust.” This image is one that is full of colour; the red of the blood, the brown of the dirt, the colour of death; black. And then there is white, the colour of peace, but this image is flipped and subverted by the writer as she makes her war photographer [and us] see “a hundred agonies in black and white” all hanging there in photographic form. Life and death in monochrome. That is what he has captured.

There is one more thing that the photographer and the editor has to do, if they are not one and the same person and that is to choose “five or six for Sunday’s newspaper supplement.” Just how do you look at photographs such as this and then choose one for use in a magazine? I suppose in time, the editor and the photographer would become immune to the horrors. The more of these they see, the more blase they would become about them. The more they see them, the more they would think to use the next ones which are worse than those that have gone before them. In this way, when we see them in our magazines, our “eyeballs prick with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.”

We tend to view photographs such as these nowadays as just another thing to view in the harshness of life, but what Duffy is doing here is writing a poem that shares the idea that when these people go to these places and take these photos, there is an element of danger, in taking them, as well as in seeing them, in producing them for public consumption. The man “earns his living” and the “they” who “do not care” is us, the consumer who voraciously seeks after one image or another in the desire to read about the next fight that has taken place. In this way, the writer is making a social comment about our need to rubber neck when there is something horrible to see, using the image of war and a photographer to bring the idea home to us all.


When we see the photographer, we are meant to see ourselves. When we see the images of war, we are meant to see our need for titillation. When we see the horror, we are meant to see our need to see even more. This is what we are like as human beings! That is the power of this poem, for she allows us to see into the soul of our conscious thinking about how we treat others across the world.