Friday, November 27, 2009

The Photographer

by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefèvre

From the first time I saw this gorgeously-designed book, I knew I wanted to read it. I'd enjoyed Guibert's 'Alan's War', and I had more than a passing interest in the subject matter. I figured I'd enjoy the book, but was instead blown away by it.

'The Photographer' tells the story of
Didier Lefèvre, a French photographer who was hired by Medécins sans frontières (MSF) to accompany a group of doctors into Afghanistan in 1986, with the purpose of documenting their work. Due to the war with the Soviet Union, Lefèvre and company, including a large number of mujahideen fighters, must cross into the country on foot and through treacherous mountain passes, often at night to escape Soviet detection and bombing.

Once in Afghanistan, the team set about treating local villagers, both for typical ailments and for war wounds. Later,
Lefèvre decides to return to Pakistan alone, and in this section, the book becomes quite harrowing, as he has to deal, in incredibly poor Dari, with lazy guides, bad weather, and racketeers.

The book consists of many of
Lefèvre's photos, surrounded by Guibert's comics. It is an incredibly effective approach. In some scenes, it reads like fumetti, but for most of the book, the photos, which capture the landscape in all its rugged beauty (and the people in theirs') compliment the story to a great degree, adding a touch of realism to the whole thing.
Lefèvre is an incredible person, but the doctors of MSF come across as the true heroes of the book, especially Juliette, who leads the expedition. She is able to command the respect of the men she comes across, even entering into a brotherhood alliance with one powerful Afghani wakil. Her strength, flexibility, and determination are what makes everything seen in the book possible.

The one thing that this book does not shy away from is the sheer difficulty of life in Afghanistan at that time.
Lefèvre is pushed to the limits of what his body can handle, and it is clear that Afghanis are some of the toughest people on the Earth. I work with a number of Afghani children (and their families), and this book has provided me with some insight into their character and development.

This graphic novel also brought to mind William Vollmann's first book, "The Afghanistan Picture Show", in which he chronicles his time with the Mujahideen. Had
Lefèvre come across Vollmann on a high mountain pass, I would not have been surprised.
This beautiful book is highly recommended.

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