The Photographer

The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders
Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Frederic Lemercier
Published by First Second

Photojournalism, Afghanistan, oral history -- it sounds like heavy stuff, and it is literally heavy as well -- in a coffee table sized, 288 page book, and I’ve avoided reading this book for as many years as I’ve been encountering it at my local library. But at some point, when you’ve read everything else on the shelf, The Photographer calls your name, and you must answer. And I am so very glad I did, finally. It’s the all too true story of photographer Didier Lefèvre’s stint traveling through rural Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders (MSF) in the mid-1980s. The country was in the midst of war with the Soviet Union at the time, and landmines, internal strife between towns and factions, and extreme poverty marked the experience of rural Afghan life. Lefèvre sets out to document this rural existence so utterly foreign to the Western world  - and often seems in total awe of both its beauty and tragedy himself. His photographs of traveling caravans, MSF surgeries, invalids young and old  and the rolling hills  of the countryside are  utterly foreign but resonate powerfully and familiarly with universal experiences of personal interconnectedness, the value of work and sacrifice, and physical suffering.

The story is divided into three parts, the first being Lefèvre’s tenuous acclimation to Afghanistan and its cultural landscape - especially the tricky process of discerning who commands respect and who truly deserves it.  The second part was perhaps the most emotional, in which he recounts the work of the MSF doctors, who do everything they can in spare and sometimes squalid conditions, working to gain and keep the trust of populations who’ve had very little access to modern medicine. The doctors’ devotion to their work, even when it seems futile or hopeless, is absolutely breathtaking -- and to think that they continue work like this throughout the world is an awesome thing. The third act, in which Lefèvre’s decides he can no longer follow the MSF workers who have decided to extend their mission for a few weeks, and his disastrous attempt to forge his own path back to civilization, is almost unbelievable in its intensity and moments of white-knuckle fear, but having gotten to know Didier in the first two sections, you find yourself all in and almost reliving the experience of being stranded with a wounded horse, near death, on a snowy mountaintop for days.

Emmanuel Guibert, who has groomed and guided this fascinating story into the graphic novel format, is a master of this particular genre. The graphic visualization of a powerful oral history is the focus here, which he does by obtaining a true knowledge and intimacy of the person whose story he is representing. He’s also produced  Alan’s War and How the World Was, which  recount the life of an American G.I. before and during World War II  - a story that got told simply because Guibert met Cope as an older man living in France. Guibert’s artwork is precise and selective, but draws your attention and directs it  to the words of his subject instead of  trying to impress us with to his own incredible artistry. In The Photographer, it’s particularly interesting to have his work interspersed with Lefèvre’s photographs of the actual events. It’s lyrical,nearly seamless, and an extremely absorbing, simultaneously  journalistic and deeply emotional collage.

In the end, Emmanuel Guibert's highly detailed illustrations, intensely researched stories, and holistic understanding of his subjects' strengths, flaws, values and passions can seem a bit daunting when you crack open one of his books -- he's handing on all the work he's taken to get to know someone deeply over to you. But don't be afraid! His work is some of the most innovative use of the graphic novel format I've ever seen, without a hint of gimmick to it, and some of the smartest and most accessible use of oral history out there, irregardless of format. Do yourself a favor, do the rewarding work of reading it -- you'll be glad you did, and hungry for more.