Carol Ann Duffy’s War Photographer is found in the current Edexcel IGCSE Anthology and will be a possible pair for comparative analysis in English Literature Paper 1. This article is one attempt to unpick its secrets as my Year 11s head into the twilight world of preparation for their mock exams. It is not intended as a model answer to an exam essay – more a starting point for further discussion.
Duffy’s short poem is divided into 4 stanzas each to explore an aspect of the process of delivering photographs from a war zone to the (complacent) readers at home. She uses the setting of the ‘darkroom’ to allow consideration of the role of photographer and to highlight the contrasts between the two worlds in which he operates.
From the start of the poem, the ‘darkroom’ (I am always amazed how few students recognise this as a ‘thing’, referring mainly to the idea of an ill-lit room) is shown as having only the red light which ‘softly glows’ – a womb-like world of peace which is likened directly to church – the red light echoing the red of the candle holders ranged around the altar as the priest intones a Mass – the service for the dead as well as the daily devotion. At once we can relate the photographer to the priest – bearing witness to the inescapable truths of the world – he has his ‘spools of suffering’ – the little rolls of film which carry the pictures of pain and destruction and metaphorically containing part of that suffering themselves. The three cities named possibly reflect each of the spools lined up in the manner of tombstones in a war cemetery -‘ordered rows’ – all are cities destroyed in war and each deserve memorial. The stanza closes with a line from the Funeral service commenting on the transient nature of life. Of course the photographs are able to fight against this idea – they speak for the dead, long after their deaths.
Within this hallowed ground, the photographer/celebrant allows his mind to wander as the process of developing film continues. IN the second stanza we focus on the trays of developing fluid and Duffy can show us the past and present in the image of the hands ‘which did not tremble then’. Despite the importance of the ‘job’, highlighted by the short sentence which opens the stanza – all business-like and unemotional, the photographer is suffering himself with what we readers can recognise as PTSD. He considers his home -‘rural England’ , as far removed from war as it is possible to be and his mind begins to picture all he has seen. The long sentence which closes the stanza reflects the way in which his mind moves from the rational focus on his job to a more emotional and uncontrolled response – the vivid imagery of ‘running children in a nightmare heat’ clearly recalls the famous photograph of a naked child running to avoid a napalm attack in Vietnam – possibly the first war photograph to achieve iconic status as an art work as well as a record of cruelty. The ‘nightmare’ heat refers as much to the re-appearance of the image in his mind, as well as the unimaginable horror of the actual attack.
The setting ‘rural England’ sits as a single sentence centrally to the stanza – this is his home, his Heimat -the place he belongs. It is unable to remain untainted now by all he has seen.
As stanza three opens, he is brought back to an awareness of the process in the dark room. Another short business like sentence alerts him that ‘something is happening’. In the process, the image is beginning to emerge onto the photo paper like ‘a half -formed ghost’ suggesting the subject of the picture is long dead. The verb ‘twist’ suggests an almost hallucinogenic vision of the past come to haunt him as his memories take from the darkroom back to the war zone. His memories now are aural – the ‘cries’ and the attempts to bridge a vocabulary gap in order to gain permission to photograph this man. He describes this permission as doing what ‘someone must’ – he is compelled to act, rather as the priest is compelled to follow God’s word. Thus his job becomes more a vocation – to bear witness to the inhumanity of man. He recalls vividly the ‘blood stained into foreign dust’ again recalling the death service – dust to dust- and linking us back to the opening images in stanza one. The marking of the soil as ‘foreign’ is also important since it separates him and the reader from the vents by geographical distance. In stanza four this will become vital as the papers arrive on the Sunday tables.
In the last stanza, his photograph moves out of his control and it is the editor who will choose the image to use from the ‘hundred agonies’ provided by the photographer. The choice will be made on the grounds of the emotions created – the respect for the dead shown by the photographer is replaced by a need to sell papers by making the ‘readers’ eyeballs prick/with tears’. The photograph which began as a tomb-like spool has become a transient memorial, easily placed to one side in order to take lunch. The internal rhyme of ‘tears’ with ‘beers’ neatly shows the photographer’s scorn for those who can see this image and not be scarred by it. He, however has to move on and in the final couplet he is in a new setting- an aeroplane flying to his next job whilst the poem closes on the negative ‘do not care’ referring to the readers. Detached yet suffering in his own way. His mission to continue to bear witness to the cruelty of the world.
Duffy writes throughout in an iambic tread, generally using pentameter lines, though not exclusively. Whilst I think it is far-fetched to equate her blank verse with Shakespeare’s and to claim that she presents a mini tragedy in this anonymous hero, we must be aware of the heritage of this verse form in our culture. It is the verse of Shakespeare and is used when the discussion is of high emotional impact or referring to characters of high status. It can be no coincidence that Duffy chose this rhythm to present such an intense idea to the reader – the need to bear witness is challenged by the need to make a profit and the complacency of the men ‘at home abed’. I have suggested before, when writing about Harrison’s The Bright Lights of Sarajevo that there is a link between the iambic pentameter and the heart beat. In a poem which shares similar ideas as the Harrison, the idea still holds – the steady heartbeat underlies the whole poem – in times of stress the beat races and the lines extend- line 10 being an example of this free running emotion, accentuated by the enjambment of the following couplet – ‘to fields which… nightmare heat’. The stanza closes with a rhymed couplet, as each will, much as in the same way in which Shakespeare uses this device to indicate the close of a scene in his plays (Duffy’s Manchester accent will allow Mass and Grass to rhyme, this is not a half-rhyme).