In 1986 French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre traveled to Afghanistan with a group from Doctors Without Borders in order to document their efforts to provide medical care for the Afghan people and for the mujaheddin fighting the Soviet army. Lefèvre followed the doctors as they dodged armies and chatted up warlords. He watched and photographed as they assembled a makeshift hospital in a tiny village and treated both mundane illnesses and horrific war wounds. Three months into the trip, Lefèvre decided to break with the Doctors Without Borders group and make his way back to Pakistan. He barely scraped through a tangle of incompetent guides, inhospitable terrain, and corrupt officials. When he finally returned to France, Lefèvre managed to sell just six of his photographs. Luckily for us, Lefèvre eventually befriended French comics artist Emmanuel Guibert and the two men worked together to create The Photographer.
The result is a moving and eye-opening work of art. Much of the art is composed of Lefèvre’s photographs, either single shots or proof sheets (pages of thumbnail images arranged in the order they were taken — the similarity to comics panels is so striking I’m surprised I haven’t seen them used before). These are mixed with blocks of narration and panels drawn by Guibert. The combination may sound unwieldy but it’s actually quite effective. The black and white photos ground the book, giving it an inescapable realism. They capture the messiness and suffering of the war. Meanwhile, Guibert’s simplified figures and minimal backgrounds offer the reader a respite from the extensive detail of the photographs and propel the story forward, inserting dialogue and scenes that Lefèvre was unable to photograph. The color palette is muted, dominated by the brown shades of the arid countryside, which helps ease the transition from photographs to drawings.
Lefèvre knew next to nothing about Afghanistan before beginning his trip and makes a relatable protagonist. The reader shares his awe at the selfless determination of the French doctors as well as his appreciation of the starkly beautiful landscape and curiosity about Afghan culture. The book provides a valuable glimpse of a land and people many Americans know little about, despite the fact that our military has been there for nearly ten years. It’s worth noting that the book contains very little background information on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or allusion to the American-led invasion that came years later. It sticks doggedly to Lefèvre’s personal story and is a stronger work for it. The book doesn’t teach history or espouse political positions, but the inherent drama and pathos make the reader want to learn more. Like the work of Joe Sacco or Marjane Satrapi, it puts a personal face on people too often shown as impersonal antagonists in American media.