The poem focuses on two main themes:
These themes are revealed not only through Duffy’s word choice and imagery, but also through the central paradox that while the imagery of war is more widespread and prevalent than at any other time in history, its impact upon those of us exposed to it is rapidly declining.
Duffy’s skilful yet understated imagery helps to convey the terrible personal stories that lie behind every conflict. Perhaps almost in an attempt to counter the graphic imagery that we have become so used to seeing, her depictions are subtle and understated and she often leaves the reader to compose their own images.
For example, in the line
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet /of running children, she takes an image that we would usually associate with something innocent and happy and subverts it into something much more sinister.
Similarly, her description of the dying man contains almost no visual imagery and instead focuses on the sense of sound through the word choice
cries and the unspoken communication between the photographer and the victim’s wife
By focusing on just one image rather than the countless others that were taken, Duffy forces us to confront the personal cost of war. In doing so, Duffy again exposes another paradox inherent in the coverage of modern conflict, implying that we have lost the capacity to view the subjects of war as real human beings, each with unique, individual stories and tragedies.
Throughout the poem, Duffy conveys the increasing separateness and isolation the photographer feels both towards his own country and the newspaper he works for.
Unlike us and his editor, he is unable to protect himself from the horror of the subjects he photographs and there is a sense of growing bitterness as he continues to feed the voracious need for news in the knowledge that we are increasingly unmoved and unaffected by the images. Our disingenuous response is recorded most clearly in the line
The reader’s eyeballs prick/with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
His contempt for his editor is revealed in the careless, thoughtless way he notes how he chooses photographs for the paper, picking out
five or six/for Sunday’s supplement.
Ironically, in an almost parallel response to our desensitisation, the photographer too feels increasingly indifferent towards his homeland and fellow countrymen as he
stares impassively at where/he earns his living and they do not care.