August 2009

Shaun Manning

nonfiction

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefevre

Originally published in three volumes by French publisher, Dupuis, and presented in English in one graphic novel by First Second, Guibert and Lefevre's The Photographer is an incredible piece of documentary art. Composed of hundreds of Lefevre's photographs taken during a Doctors Without Borders mission to Afghanistan in 1986 and illustrations by Guibert reconstructing his journey, the book resembles an exhibition catalogue as much as it does a comic book. The stunning visuals are more than a little added by Lefevre's incredible adventure, the lasting effects of which ultimately led to his death, aged 50, in 2007. As Afghanistan remains in the news as a front in America's "War on Terrorism," The Photographer provides an honest and accessible account of the country and its people in a landscape that was ravaged by war even twenty years ago, while emphasizing the difficult and necessary work of non-government agencies like Doctors Without Borders.

Didier Lefevre's story begins with leisurely introductions, as the photographer says goodbye to his mother and grandmother in Paris and travels to Pakistan to meet up with the Doctors Without Borders team (abbreviated MSF, for the French Medicins Sans Frontieres). While awaiting the weapons caravan that will smuggle the group across the border to Afghanistan, Lefevre is fitted for appropriate clothing, begins to grow out his beard, learns a few standard greetings, and does his best to acclimate to his new surroundings. Once in Afghanistan, Juliette, the leader of the MSF team, smoothes things over with the local chieftains and requests protection from Aider Shah, a warlord with "an amazing beard" who appreciates the efforts Doctors Without Borders has made on his people's behalf. Throughout their journey through mountainous terrain, Lefevre photographs the picturesque scenery, fellow travelers struggling along the path, the gunplay of MSF's mujahideen escorts, and the trials of the animals that carry the caravan's burdens. The MSF doctors treat patients in small villages along the way, before finally reaching their destination in Zaragandara, where they will operate out of porchfront medical theatre.

As MSF performs surgery on victims of gunfire, bombs, and unchecked disease, Lefevre documents everything. Portraits of the recovering injured mingle with small-town tableau unique to Afghanistan -- while men lounge happily even in the poorest rural areas, the region's Mujahideen fighters never set their rifles aside. The photographer's role is to document the doctors' accomplishments rather than aid the community himself, and as such he is never quite part of the group. Lefevre's admiration for his colleagues is clear though: after Juliette and her team work late into the night to save a young boy whose jaw has been destroyed by shrapnel, Lefevre waits until the others are asleep and whispers, "Bravo."

The third book spins out of a decision that, were this book fiction, would have to be disregarded as absurd. But in life, people often behave ridiculously. Lefevre's impatience for a return to Paris sees him set off on his own for Pakistan once his contract is through, rather than waiting with the MSF doctors for the caravan that would transport them safely. The photographer, who knows little of the language and fewer of the nation's customs, thus makes an already dangerous journey even more dire. He does, however, snap some amazing shots along the way, including a wide-angle shot from ground level "to let people know where I died."

Throughout The Photographer, Lefevre's film provides several highlights, from stunning scenes of ponies crossing rivers, shocking crisp landscapes, and wryly humorous portraits of wounded yet dignified Mujahideen, to truly grotesque pictures from the medical theatre, including a paralyzed girl waiting to die and the very disturbing image of the boy with half a face mentioned already. While the photography is the star, Guibert's inky illustrations set a superb contrast and ably move the book's photojournalist-narrator through his story.

Non-fiction and journalistic graphic novels have a distinct ability to mix the storytelling style of extended magazine features with a sustained visual component, creating a reading experience that is quite different from a text-only memoir or genre comic. When done well, the results can be stunning -- there's a reason books like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Palestine by Joe Sacco, and the stylized yet true-to-life Maus by Art Spiegelman are among the comics medium's best-known and highest regarded stories. Guibert and Lefevre's The Photographer deserves to be considered with this company.

 

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefevre (tr. Alexis Siegel)
First Second Books
ISBN: 1596433752
288 pages
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