Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, et al., The Photographer (First Second, 2009), $29.95. paperback.
By Jared Gardner
I have spent a long time thinking about how best to review this book, so long that it is in fact now been out for a couple of months and has now received many glowing reviews from those who were not rendered as tongue-tied as I was by this book. I am still not sure why I have found this a more challenging book to write about than most. In part, I am certain, it is for the most personal (and therefore, for the rest of the world, least interesting) of reasons: memories of a lost friend who did the good work in Afghanistan at the same time that Lefévre was there with Doctor’s Without Borders, documenting their struggles to bring medical care to those living with endless war in an unforgiving landscape; self-questioning as to my own failures to do anything nearly half as brave or as selfless as the remarkable people portrayed in this book. But in the end, I feel, my silence is the best testament to the power of this book. It is a heroic book without any heroes, in the traditional sense of the term; it is a war story without any shooting and killing; it is a travel narrative that takes place largely in the dark, in the snow, in a fog of malnutrition and adrenaline. And it is the most eloquent book I have read in a long time about all that cannot be told about heroes, war and journeys
The Photographer tells the story of Diedre Lefévre’s first trip as a photojournalist into the heart of war-torn Afghanistan, on assignment accompanying Doctors without Borders, the remarkable organization devoted to going where no other doctors dared, in the worst of times. As the story begins, Lefévre knows about as much about Afghanistan in the 1980s under Soviet occupation as most of us did and do, and so he serves as a perfect guide for the reader. The people he is traveling with are all veterans of similar trips, all conducted under the most miserable conditions, at tremendous personal risk, for people who are desperately poor and powerless. This is, in one sense, a very different Afghanistan than that which has become Obama’s war, both inherited and chosen. But of course, it is the same country, the same mountains, the same people—only some of the men holding the guns have changed. And it will be the same country after the U. S. follows the Soviet Union. In the meantime, the people of Afghanistan are getting shot, blown up by mines, bombed—and that is where Doctors Without Borders come in.
The book is an oversized volume, combining photography from contact sheets from Lefévre’s 1986 trip with drawings by Lefévre’s friend Emmanuel Guibert (The Professor’s Daughter, Alan’s War). The result is a thick read: the work of moving back and forth between the photographs and the comics panels is surprisingly challenging and raises issues about the relationship between the photographic and hand-drawn image (although trying to work through that tension is part of why I have been mute so long about this book). In fact, I found myself wishing the book were larger still, so I could better read the photographs, black and white images of varying quality from contact sheets more than 20 years old--so I could better feel the landscape as he did. Interestingly and impressively, for a book called The Photographer, Guibert’s art and Lefévre’s humble and moving narration evokes more feeling than the vast majority of the photographs—save in some remarkable sequences when he allows the photographs themselves to describe better than any art or words could the experience of removing a bullet from a man’s back or watching a girl’s brutally burned hand be treated.
The final section of the book recounts Lefévre’s harrowing attempt to return to Pakistan on his own, an experience from which he only barely survived, and with considerable cost to his health. Lefévre died recently, far too young at 49, shortly after the book was published in France. And yet despite all he experienced there, he returned, several times, over the next twenty years. The same is true for most of the others he accompanied on that first trip, which began as a journalistic assignment and became a vital part of his life. I can’t say that I completed the book entirely understanding what he and his colleagues found in the country to bring them back, aside from the painful suffering and remarkable strength of the people. I did not close the book with any clearer understanding of what makes the kind of people capable of doing such things, taking such risks. But then again, I don’t close a mainstream comic with a clear anatomy of what makes a superhero, either. I am just glad that they are here--in this case, for real.