The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders (First Second)

photographerheader.jpgPhotographer Didier Lefèvre and artist Emmanuel Guibert document Lefèvre’s 1986 trip to war-torn Afghanistan in this blending of photography and comic art.

 

 

288 pgs.; color; $29.95

(W: Didier Lefèvre; A:Emmanuel Guibert)

In 1986, French photographer Didier Lefèvre was hired by Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières or MSF) to document a mission in northern Afghanistan. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan was in full swing at the time and the MSF doctors had to enter Afghanistan by donkey caravan over the mountain passes from Pakistan, sometimes walking at night to reduce the danger of being shot at by Soviet aircraft. It was a life-changing experience for Lefèvre, who would return seven times to Afghanistan before his death at age 49 from a heart attack.

Lefèvre took over four thousand photos on this journey, but had difficulty getting them published: the French newspaper Libération printed six in December 1986, but otherwise there seemed to be no market for them. Thirteen years later the cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert suggested that they make a book about the trip, built around Lefèvre’s photos: the splendid result of this collaboration is the graphic novel The Photographer.

There’s a reason Afghanistan is called the "graveyard of empires" and I duly hope that the United States will not join Great Britain and the Soviet Union as yet another great power who found their military might to be less than effective in that country’s mountainous terrain and complex tribal culture. It’s hard not to read Lefèvre’s experiences as an overconfident innocent abroad as a political allegory, even if they weren’t based on his own true experiences: for this reason The Photographer should be required reading for America’s military advisors.

Although The Photographer is loaded with information about Afghanistan, as with many travelogues the focus is really on the narrator and how he changes over the course of the journey. Lefèvre begins knowing little about the country or its customs (something he probably shares with the average American reader), but over the course of the journey has to confront his assumptions as an urban Frenchman and develop the survival skills demanded by this new environment. This he manages admirably, but in true hero’s journey fashion must have one more trial before he return home victorious. Lefèvre’s overestimates his understanding of the culture and underestimates the deep knowledge provided by the MSF contingent and decides to conduct the return journey to Pakistan without them, a decision which almost leads to his death.

The Photographer is a stunning and unique artistic work: published in large format (11.6" by 9"), it combines Lefèvre’s photographs with Guibert’s Hergé-like drawings, sometimes presenting the same scene in both media. At first glance it almost seems to be an updated boy’s own adventure story, as if a Tintin were still around in the 1980’s and ventured into Afghanistan. But The Photographer is no kid’s story, and this is reflected in the art: Guibert’s palette is much darker and earth-toned than Hergé’s, and the black-and-white photographs emphasize the real and frequently grim nature of the events portrayed. Although the art of The Photographer is presenting using variety of frame sizes, the prevailing concept is that of the contact sheet, so most pages are composed primarily from horizontal frames of consistent size.

Frederic Lemercier was colorist and designer on The Photographer, Alexis Siegel did the English translation, and Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis fame provided lettering for the Persian-language dialogue. Further information and a preview are available at http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/events/exhibits/thephotographer/ and you can see some a selection of Lefèvre’s photographs at http://didier.lefevre.free.fr/indexe.html. | Sarah Boslaugh

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