In July of 1986 freelance photographer Didier Lefevre left France to document a Doctors Without Borders operation in Afghanistan. This was during the time of the Soviet invasion, which not only complicated their journey but also ensured that they’d have their work cut out for them upon arriving in country. Lefevre took four thousand photos documenting his journey which contained equal parts enthusiasm, hopefulness, frustration, and terror as he witnessed the doctors’ work up close, got to know the Afghan people, and embarked on his own journey back to Pakistan ahead of the group. Years later, his writer/artist friend Emmanuel Guibert worked with him and layout artist/colorer Frederic Lemercier to tell the story of that trip. It’s a remarkable journey both in the telling and the way the story of it is told.
Though Guibert provides the art and the words, he uses the pictures Lefevre took during his time in Afghanistan to give you a genuine “you are there” feeling to the narrative. From the preparations in Pakistan, to the journey through the mountains into Afghanistan, and the many villages the crew visits when they get there, you see them all in stark black and white. The photos themselves provide a fascinating glimpse into a country many of us only know from the nightly news and put real faces to these people who are mainly spoken of in the most general terms. Lefevre doesn’t shy away from the doctors’ work, so parts of this narrative will not be for the squeamish. It still offers a bracing look into DWB’s efforts to treat serious illness and injury in some of the most hard-to-reach places of the globe.
In contrast to the photographs, Guibert’s art is relatively simple with simple linework and every page broken down into a “grid” layout. It’s a smart move as it not only makes following the narrative and working in the photos incredibly easy, but it also doesn’t compete for attention with the still images. By emphasizing a style opposed to photorealism, Guibert lets the photos stand out all the more while the narrative parts have the space to develop as they need.
The story is effectively broken down into three parts recounting Lefevre’s prep time and journey with the DWB into Afghanistan, his coverage of their work there, and then his trip home. It does take a little while for things to get interesting as the preparations in Pakistan are a little dry and the book’s artistic style does require some getting used to. Once the journey begins, things really get going as we’re treated to a wealth of information about not just Afghani culture, but the DWB’s own methods as well. If you’ve ever wondered about either or both, then this has automatically become required reading for you.
Though the constant influx of information through the first two parts makes for a great read, it’s the last section that will likely get inside your guts and linger like an infection. That’s because Lefevere’s trip back didn’t go the way he was expecting. To say more would be a crime, considering how immersed I became in seeing whether or not he’d make it out of the country intact or even alive at all. For reasons which will become apparent, this section also features the most artwork from Guibert as there were some parts that could not be caught on film. The writer/artist also does a great job of capturing the slow creeping dread that occurs to Lefevre during his trip as things start to go increasingly wrong. You’ll want to have some time on your hands to finish this part in one go as reading about the photographer’s exploits in this section is incredibly hard to put down.
Though parts of it may be hard to read, “The Photographer” is an intensely compelling experience and also a singular one as well. I can cite Guy Delisle’s travelogues as examples of a foreigner coming to grips with another culture, but his life is never in any danger even when he’s in North Korea. Lefevre’s journey is fascinating in the way that it shows us the people who are willing to risk it all to help out complete strangers and a harrowing tale of how it is to be alone in a foreign country’s hinterlands. To emphasize how much I was captivated by this book, let me say that this wasn’t my copy that I’m talking about now. It belongs to a friend who also loaned me Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” along with it. Of the two, this will be the one that I will make sure winds up with a permanent spot in my library.