The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefevre. Published 2009 by First Second. Nonfiction. Memoir.
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders is simply a stunning achievement. A combination of photo-journalism and graphic novel, The Photographer documents the journey into and out of a remote Afghani village by a French photographer, Didier Lefevre. He's travelling to document a medical mission by Doctors Without Borders (Medicins sans Frontiers), and travels in from Pakistan with a caravan of MSF doctors and staffers; when he decides to leave, he travels back to Pakistan on his own.
The story is set in 1986, while the Soviet Union was still trying to take control of Afghanistan. The book is divided roughly in thirds- the trip in, the time spent in the village, and the trip out. None of it is easy. We follow Lefevre's struggles with everything from the food and his busted footwear to near-lethal showdowns with blackmailers and kidnappers. We also see first-hand the work that MSF is doing - again, managing everything from household accidents to severe disease and life-threatening injury, on a shoestring budget in makeshift conditions. Throughout the atmosphere is one of tenuous balance. The MSF doctors and staff, almost all Europeans, are forever forging alliances and negotiating with all kinds of characters in this wild and beautiful country, as their safety and survival demand strict adherence to and respect for cultural norms and expectations.
Nowhere is this adherence more important than when Lefevre attempts to return to Pakistan on his own, without MSF protection. Accompanied only by a ragtag caravan and guides whose loyalty is never certain, Lefevre's personal fortitude, command of the local language and willingness to endure hardships are put to the test over and over. One of the most chilling sequences for me was, on one level, quite mundane- chatting with Afghani men about his religion and lifestyle. He figures out very quickly that when someone asks him what his background is, for a non-Muslim European there's only one correct answer- Christian, and religious at that, and married, and a father. He acknowledges to the reader that only the "Christian" part of his standard-issue answer is accurate, but he fears for his life if he answers honestly. He believes that someone would likely put a bullet in his head if he said he wasn't religious (or if he said he was Jewish), or look askance if he said he wasn't a married father, so rigid are his companions' cultural expectations, and so vulnerable is his position in this veritable wilderness.
And that's just the narrative side. The visual side is incredible. The book is simply filled with Lefevre's photographs- some just contact-print-sized thumbnails, some gorgeous two-page spreads of landscape. He documents both journeys and the time he spends in the village, snapping anything he can to tell his story. Because he is with a medical mission, some photos are graphic and raw images of injury and illness; others are sweeping vistas and panoramas, and some can tell a whole story in the picture of a horse or a homestead or a squatting child.
Guibert's illustrations do the hard work of telling the story in between the photographs- and except for the back flap, we only see Lefevre through Guibert's drawings. Guibert's style is rough and almost cramped; compared to the photos, it felt to me like he had to squeeze so much into his small panels and the effect is almost claustrophobic. Guibert's drawings also have a raw quality which I think fits the wild-west atmosphere of both rural Afghanistan and the busy Pakistani city of Karachi, where LeFevre and the MSF team depart and return.
The Photographer is the kind of graphic novel that should give the genre a good name, and its combination of drawn art, photography and narrative punch pushes the limits of what the genre can do- just as Lefevre and MSF show us what we're capable of, too. A while back I reviewed The Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle, a cartoonist married to an MSF worker who used his cartooning skills to document his time in that little-understood country, and I'm glad to see another memoir coming from a similar milieu. It's the gift of the visual artist to be able to take what he or she sees and share it with the rest of us, to help broaden our knowledge and understanding of the world. To this end, the book also includes a primer on recent Afghani history to help situate the reader. I'd unreservedly recommend The Photographer for teens and adults wishing to get a better understanding of Afghanistan, or just looking for a great true adventure story about pushing your own limits and making the world a better place.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.