by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier LeFevre, Frederic Lemercier
The Photographer: Into War–Torn Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders (First Second Books, 2009) is the story of photojournalist Didier LeFevre’s first assignment: to accompany a team of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) who were traveling through Pakistan to Afghanistan in 1986, during the long bloody conflict between the invading Soviet Union troops and the Taliban. The book is a collaboration between artist Emmanuel Guibert and LeFevre, assembled by graphic designer Frederic Lemercier. The pictures include both LeFevre’s original contact sheets (it’s interesting to note that contact sheets of photos are not unlike strips of comics) and Guibert’s drawings, while the text is reconstructed from discussions Guibert and LeFevre had about the journey. (LeFevre’s journals, mentioned in the book, were lost years before.) The result is a powerful reading and viewing experience. It’s a good example of how the graphic novel format can work elegantly for nonfiction; it’s also a good example of how inadequate the term “graphic novel” is for a work that make equal use of text and illustrations. And the decision to do this as a graphic novel, however inadequate the phrase is, was exactly right, because we need both the visuals and the text to fully grasp the experiences LeFevre and the MSF team underwent. It began in Peshawar and ended, three months later, in Afghanistan. Just getting to their destination involved plenty of danger; it required many pack animals and forty armed guards. Straying off the path was not encouraged, as landmines were prevalent; and there was always the fear of snipers or of being attacked by roving soldiers of either side. Their destination was a small village in northern Afghanistan, where they set up a clinic to treat the men, women, and children who were the collateral damage in a brutal war. When the team was returning back to their home base in Pakistan, LeFevre made an unwise choice to travel back to Pakistan by himself – a decision that nearly got him killed. Reading The Photographer is a stunning, unforgettable experience: you somehow emerge from your time spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Didier and the members of MSF a better, more humane individual.