What deeper implications/themes are brought out in the poem 'War Photographer' by Carol Ann Duffy?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Like Wilfred Owen's WWI poem "Dulce et Decorum Est," Carol Ann Duffy's "War Photographer is a powerful anti-war statement and an indictment of the indifference of civilians to the suffering depicted in the photographer's pictures.

In a clever use of simile in the first stanza, the photographer's developing room becomes a church:

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.

The pictures being developed come from some of the most violent and horrific war zones in the last forty years--all areas in which civilian casualties--men, women, children--far outnumbered those of combatants.  The reference to "all flesh is grass" is biblical and refers to the fragility of life.  Unfortunately, this metaphorical Mass is one for the dead, not the living.

The second stanza recounts both the simple reality of the photographer's life--"he has a job to do"--but, more important, he notes that although his hands didn't tremble when he was taking these photos they "seem to know."  In modern terms, the photographer is most likely dealing with a delayed response to Traumatic Stress Disorder, which commonly hits someone well after the actual experience.  The stanza's second half is meant to remind the reader of the vast difference--both mentally and physically--between "Rural England" (where he is developing the photos and where arthritis can be cured by the weather) and places where "running children" are blown up by land mines in a "nightmare heat."

As his photos develop, the "ghost" of a victim appear before the photographer's eyes, and he is forced to recall not only the blood in the "foreign dust" but also how he sought approval--without speaking, with looks only--from the man's wife.  After all, the photographer is only doing his job--even if his job is to document terrible violence and human suffering.

The last stanza centers on the indifference of the world to these horrors documented in the photographer's photos:

A hundred agonies in black-and-white/from which his editor will pick out five or six

reminds us that what the public sees is actually only a fraction of the human misery and violence documented in these photos.  The reader who sees these photos will be slightly affected--"eyeballs prick with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers"--but there is no sense that the horror in the photos are seriously going to elicit any long-lasting sympathy.

The final couplet depicts the photographer's despair--no one really cares or understands how his profession effects him and, perhaps more important, they do not truly care about the violence and misery created by war.

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