I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about teaching Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “War Photographer”.


It doesn’t take much to make me feel like a dinosaur these days. I contemplated purchasing a new SLR camera a couple of years ago. However, the shop assistant made me feel so hopeless in the shadow of his overwhelming expertise that I decided instead to tidy up my twenty-eight year old manual Minolta, buy a couple of reels of black & white film and stick to what I know.
The trouble is, what I know isn’t what my students know. When I began teaching at Eastbourne Sixth Form College in 1988, the Art department had a small dark room. I became addicted to printing my own photographs. As soon as teaching had finished for the day I would lock myself in the dark room and get lost in the DEVELOP:STOP:FIX:WASH:DRY process of producing black and white prints. I may not have put in my 10,000 hours, but I won’t have been far off! Recently, a number of my English department colleagues were kind enough to invite me to teach a guest lesson on Carol Ann Duffy’s “War Photographer”; however, unless you are familiar with how photographs came into existence pre-digital, you cannot fully comprehend this poem…
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.
What is the main moral conflict of the poem? So, if you are teaching this poem, here are four videos to help, which can be used in the Powerpoint presentation below as indicated on the blank slides. One video illustrates how to print photographs; the Dunhill video introduces Don McCullin, the war photographer Duffy’s poem is based upon, and his moral conflict as he takes shots of people dying; an extract from the documentary, McCullin, gives a brilliant account of him working during the Battle of Hue in Vietnam; and the last one, from CNN, sees McCullin question the worth of everything he has done as a war photographer.
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Going beyond the obvious. One of the key conflicts in the poem is explored in the final stanza: the decision for the Sunday supplement’s editor as to which photographs s/he selects for his/her readers. When I began teaching A level Media Studies I recorded a programme on this very decision, a VHS recording which is long lost. The picture editors of the Sunday Times and the Observer were discussing why they had chosen two different photographs to accompany their respective articles on the American Air Force’s carpet bombing of the retreating Iraqi army on the Basra Road at the end of the first Iraq war in 1991. The Sunday Times had used a long distance shot, the picture editor arguing that he did not want his readers and their families to be upset at the breakfast table by graphic shots of the human cost of the US attack. His readers, he argued, could imagine what it must have been like:
The Observer had taken a different approach, printing Kenneth Jarecke’s famous picture of the “charred Iraqi” soldier. The Observer magazine’s picture editor was utterly certain that he wanted his readers to understand as clearly as possible the pure horror of war:
Neither of these two shots was taken by McCullin; however, I have included them in the middle of this Powerpoint to stimulate debate amongst students.
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Lately, I’ve been working on the clarity of my explanations. In the final video below, you can watch how I present the two images to students. Note how I build the images up, clarify the decisions made by each picture editor and warn the students of the graphic nature of the Observer image to engage their critical faculties.
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This post has 6 Comments

  1. Rolling back the years here, Tommo! I usually start with a (pre-warned) collection of graphic images, and the question “Do you take a picture, or do you go over and help?” This poem, this intitial discussion transcends English lessons. (But that’s why we teach, right?!)

  2. I think your comments paint the Iraqis as innocent victims of slaughter; some of your comments about the munitions used are inaccurate. the Iraqi invaders were murderous thugs and rapists. They were an armed convoy attempting to escape with what they had looted from the people of Kuwait, after committing atrocities we can never imagine. In the interest of clarity, I think this needs to be stated. I was teaching in Kurdistan, in 2011 and am presently teaching in Kuwait. I have seen and heard of how these people suffered at the hands of the Iraqi army.

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