The War Photographer introduces his life’s work
You can’t tell from this photo I hadn’t washed for six days
can’t smell napalm and death in the air
see my hands shaking after I put the camera down
or hear my outcry of messianic rhetoric
on that blitz of a mission up country with the local guide
who disappeared at the first rat-a-tat of gunfire.
This exhibition won’t show you the photos I didn’t take
the pattern of arterial blood sprayed on my lens
that botched execution consigned to memory’s ghosting
myself staring at my face in dark water for hours
squalid in a ditch, delirious from bad whisky
desperate for first light and the chopper out of there.
As a young man sure, I was cocky, gung-ho, immortal
the exotic Westerner bringing home his treasure.
I did think my camera was a magic box
detaching me, anaesthetizing the horror
but I’m not a god, a kindly friend or angel of death.
My photos won’t save everyone, or anyone.
As you say, all photography is voyeuristic
but the atrocities still happen when we’re not there
- I’ve told myself that a thousand times.
Do I have the right to freeze people in their death rictus?
Do unfixed wraiths stand by me in my darkroom
as their images appear on paper, in that red womb?
No I won’t apologise – the camera is not a gun
though it’s a kind of time machine
but taking images is not stealing spirits.
I’m invisible in my work
and conscience is a luxury of leisure I say.
My camera won’t feed the starving.
History isn’t history at the time, you see
it’s what it becomes, the lens we see through.
I’m not an alchemist, an illusionist.
I prefer magician of light.
If death is a performance, a dance
I make a wreath of flowers for the wake.
I don’t ask anyone to pose.
What you see is what I intuited was about to manifest
frozen in a split-shutter-microsecond
all coming together, the weather gods, the players.
I click and they watch me forever
but my camera feels no pain.
By being there did I change what happened?
Of course I did. Is it quantum theory?
That observation affects reality? You’re all doing it now.
As I meter light and calculate shutter speeds
the event passes through me
rematerializing in the darkroom.
Retire? What dreams will come…?
You don’t hear the tinnitus of constant shelling
when even birdsong sounds like machine guns
don’t see the images played on loop in the cinema of my brain.
When I’m old maybe, I’ll photograph glaciers, prairies.
Done talking, the photographer points his camera and shoots.
This poem was included in 100 Poems, an anthology of poems about war, conflict resolution and peace, published a year ago by Jersey Arts Centre to commemorate the centenary of World War 1.