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Analysis of Poem 'War Photographer' by Carol Ann Duffy

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy

'War Photographer' Poem

'War Photographer' is a poem that focuses on a man who is in the process of developing his latest batch of images from his latest war. He is in a darkroom, a place where chemicals meet to produce photographic images.

Carol Ann Duffy was inspired to write this poem, first published in 1985 in her book Standing Female Nude, by her photographer friend who had recently returned from a war-torn foreign country.

In it, she contrasts the quiet moments of the developing process at the home of the photographer with the horrific scenes abroad in the war, any war, that are about to become black and white images, ready for publishing in a glossy Sunday supplement.

  • It is this antithesis that creates unease for the reader. Here is a man getting paid for recording human suffering. Without war and all its horrors he wouldn't have a job, yet to do that job effectively he has to distance himself from the reality of obscene violence.

Moral questions arise about the ethical stance of a professional paid to take snaps whilst innocent people and others are blown to bits or massacred. He doesn't attempt to save anyone; he lands in a foreign country, takes some photos, leaves and then gets top money for his photographs.

The reader is drawn into a position of moral ambiguity:

  • is it right for someone to do such a thing?
  • but without the images of war that he brings back, the general public might not be aware of what is going on?
  • so he is performing a crucial task: telling the stories of those who are suffering, opening a window on a dark world that many might not want to see?

'War Photographer' is set in a darkroom, a physical space, but this could easily be a metaphor for the photographer's heart (and mind). Perhaps all is not well in there as the process of development takes place, which could well be his memories slowly forming as he flies back home.

The poem reflects what the poet says about poetry:

'Poetry, above all, is a series of intense moments - its power is not in narrative. I'm not dealing with facts, I'm dealing with emotion.'

War Photographer is a poem that poses many questions and challenges the reader's sense of morality. As the poem progresses, with its measured lines and curious rhymes, it seems the speaker has come to the conclusion that here is a man who is not quite mercenary, not quite compassionate.

'War Photographer'

'War Photographer'

Stanza By Stanza Analysis

'War Photographer' has a third-person speaker, someone who is 'looking in' on the photographer as he develops his latest images in the darkroom. This is the traditional way of bringing images out into the world (which may seem strange in this modern digital age), using liquid chemicals and photographic paper.

Memory and morals feature strongly.

Stanza 1

The reader is introduced to the war photographer who is alone in his darkroom developing his photos. Note that alliterative second line spools of suffering which hints at the plight of victims, and the ordered rows an image suggestive of headstones in a cemetery?

That red light surely signifies bloody danger, but it softly glows, contrasting heavily with the suffering and violence. This darkroom is a quiet place, like a church according to the speaker, and the man is a priest about to intone (recite in a religious manner, without high or low intonation) Mass (a eucharistic service).

The last line of this first stanza gives three cities. Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, known for the Troubles of the 1970s and 80s (involving the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries). Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, war torn for decades. Phnom Penh is the biggest city in Cambodia, also subject to violence during the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s.

All flesh is grass comes from the bible's old testament, Isaiah 40/6.

Stanza 2

This is his job of work. He uses chemicals to manually develop his pictures. He's nervous which makes him tremble. He didn't tremble when taking his photos but he's trembling now because he knows the images will affect him.

Even though he's back home in the quiet countryside of England, with only the vagaries of the weather to contend with. Here there are fields but these do not hold dangers unlike those in the war-torn country he's been visiting, where mines and bombs explode and maim people, even the children who are running away from the violence.

Again the contrast is in evidence - he's home and safe yet he knows he's about to confront those realities of war again. The imagery is vivid and frightening.

Stanza 3

The developing process is well underway and now the first hint of an image appears on the photographic paper. It is a stranger (note the inclusion of the word strange) and it starts to twist before his eyes. This is a curious verb to use - twist - as twisted features infer something not right, something out of order.

The speaker describes the image as a half-formed ghost, suggesting that this is an eerie image, like something out of a horror story. His memory is triggered and he is able to recall a wife, her cries, and his need to get approval (somehow, without words, perhaps with just a gesture and a knowing look) before he shot the victim.

Stanza 4

He's taken a hundred pictures of the victims but only a few will be chosen for the newspaper's supplement. He's done his job, now it's up to the editor to decide which images the mass public gets to see.

On Sunday, the day of rest, many people will be affected by the photographs. This is the desired effect, to disturb the reader and get a reaction from those not often used to seeing images of war on a day away from work, as they relax before going off to the pub.

The final two lines see the photographer in a plane perhaps on his way to his next assignment or flying over a battlefield or bombed city on his way home, knowing that he's simply doing his job, like a true professional and that he cannot risk getting emotionally involved in the horrors.

This is what the poem asks again and again: how can this man remain impassive, how can this human being not get involved emotionally in the horrors of war when he's there at the front line, a witness to death and destruction and cruelty?

He risks his neck to get the pictures out yes, but while somebody is dying in front of his eyes he's more worried about the focus on his lens than the human suffering involved. Is this morally justified? How does he cope with the guilt or the lack of it?

Form and Structure of War Photographer

War Photographer is a stanzaic poem, that is, it has four stanzas each with six lines, making a total of twenty four lines.

These six line stanzas are sestets and some of the lines rhyme, giving a rhyme scheme of:


These rhymes are full (eyes/cries...must/dust) which brings familiarity and tight closure. The first and fourth lines of each stanza do not rhyme which introduces a tension between the sounds' togetherness or not.

Metre of War Photographer

Metrically the poem has a pentameter base but there is no consistency. Some lines are longer (up to 14 syllables), others shorter (down to 8 syllables).

Let's take a closer look at the first stanza:

In his / darkroom / he is fin / ally / alone
with spools / of suffe / ring set out / in ord / ered rows.
The on / ly light / is red / and soft / ly glows,
as though / this were / a church / and he
a priest /prepar / ing to / intone / a Mass.
Belfast. / Beirut. / Phnom Penh. / All flesh /is grass.

Line 1 has a two trochees, an anapaest, a pyrrhic and another iamb, giving a mild trochaic pentameter, a real mix of feet.

Line 2 has two iambs starting followed by an anapaest and two more iambs which give a rhythmical regularity.

Line 3 the only pure iambic pentameter line in the stanza.

Line 4 iambic again save for the quiet pyrrhic (no stressed syllables) midway.

Line 5 The three cities are all trochaic, stress on the first syllable, whilst the final clause is iambic.

What Are the Literary/Poetic Devices in War Photographer?


When two or more words are close together in a line and start with the same consonant, producing sound textures:

his dark room he...spools of suffering though this...a priest preparing...He has...Solutions slop...his hands...which simple he...without words to do what...between the bath...


When two or more words are close together in a line and have similar-sounding vowels:

weather can dispel...beneath the feet...which his editor will pick...Sunday's supplement...his living.


A pause or break in a line, often a comma or other punctuation, pauses the flow. For example in lines:

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays

Something is happening. A stranger's features


When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, maintaining the sense and momentum. For example:

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


Substituting one thing for another to deepen meaning and effect. For example:

  • the darkroom could be a metaphor for the photographer's emotional state of mind.


Comparison between one thing and another, as in:

as though this were a church and he

a priest preparing to intone a Mass.


© 2019 Andrew Spacey