This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on March 1, 2010.
Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefèvre’s The Photographer is an outstanding book in many respects. Based on Lefèvre’s experiences as a photographer accompanying a Doctors Without Borders mission in Afghanistan in 1986, it is a fine memoir that doubles as a compelling adventure story. It also offers a richly detailed portrait of life in Afghanistan, a country most have heard a great deal about but don’t have much knowledge of. And finally, it breaks new aesthetic ground as a memoir, as comics, and as photojournalism. The book doesn’t quite reach the brass ring of being a great work, but it is an extraordinarily ambitious and accomplished effort. Comics rarely come much better.
The book begins in July of 1986 with Lefèvre, a 29-year-old French photojournalist, flying from Paris to the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar. He goes there to join a Doctors Without Borders team that is preparing a mission into Afghanistan, and his purpose is to document their efforts. It is a perilous assignment. The journey into the country involves crossing—on foot—several hundred kilometers of terrain, much of it climbing through mountain passes at high altitudes. The natives’ tolerance for foreigners varies, and matters are complicated even further by the civil war between the nation’s Soviet-backed communist government and the anti-Soviet mujahideen spread across the countryside. Danger is everywhere--it can come from the harsh weather and grueling landscape, or from bandits, bullets, or bombs.
Lefèvre is depicted as largely oblivious to the risks. He mainly seems interested in having a good time, and he greatly enjoys himself in Peshawar. However, once the mission gets underway, he doesn’t seem to fully register how dangerous the journey into Afghanistan is. He just takes it for granted that, while the trip may be physically arduous, there’s no real threat to his safety. His lack of concern is shocking. A member of the team’s native escort gets separated from them at one point, even though he eventually finds his way back to the caravan. It’s clear from his expression--the book shows Lefèvre’s photographs of him--that the experience of being lost in the Afghan countryside was absolutely terrifying. Beyond taking his pictures, though, Lefèvre is shown as being largely indifferent to the man. There’s not even any anxiety over the possibility of what happened to the fellow happening to him. He is far more interested in relating how he came to enjoy the special tea the man is brought to help recover.
The scene that includes the photographs of the lost man is where the book’s format comes together for the reader. Lefèvre and cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert had more on their mind when creating The Photographer than simply creating a graphic-novel account of Lefèvre’s experiences. They were also looking to provide an effective narrative showcase for Lefèvre’s pictures. As the book demonstrates, comics provides a better context in which to present the photographs than perhaps any other medium. Interspersing the photographs throughout a prose memoir wouldn’t work half as well. Photography and passages of writing engage the brain in different ways, and they’re too dissimilar to work in conjunction with one another. A reader can look at one or the other, but they can’t be taken in simultaneously. Comics panels are just close enough to photographs for the reader to switch back and forth between the two without it being too jarring. Lefèvre’s story is richer for having the photographs integrated with it in this way, and the photos are all the more powerful for having the story behind them presented so accessibly.
The only complaint one has with the photographs is that there are far too many of them. Guibert and the book’s designer/colorist, Frédéric Lemercier, don’t stop at including individual photographs at key points of the narrative. There are whole sequences that are nothing but photographs, and they disrupt the story’s rhythms. One can justify it in some instances, such as the 2½-page scene in which a little Afghan girl has a burn on her hand treated by one of the mission’s doctors. The book is as much the story of this Doctors Without Borders mission as it is of Lefèvre’s experiences, and this is the work that they do. But some of the extended photographic sequences are of extraneous material, such as the page in which Lefèvre watches an Afghan boy plow a small field with a pair of cattle. Aesthetically, the worst moments are when Guibert and Lemercier present whole sequences from Lefèvre’s proof sheets, such as the scene in which the doctors treat a boy who has had part of his face torn off in an artillery blast. A page made up of 48 separate photographs thuds hard against the eye; one has to force oneself to make one’s way through the sequence.
One of the most powerful scenes is notable for not using photographs at all. It appears during the book’s middle section, in which Lefèvre follows members of the Doctors Without Borders team around as they tend to the sick and injured in the Afghan countryside. After treating a number of people wounded during the bombing of their village, one of the doctors is summoned to a man’s house to examine his daughter, and Lefèvre tags along. The two discover that the little girl is permanently paralyzed, crippled by a fragment of shrapnel no bigger than a grain of rice. Lefèvre, emotionally drained by the sight of the casualties he has been photographing all day, cannot bring himself to take any pictures; he just retreats to a corner of the room and starts crying. He is there to be an impassive observer, but he has reached a point where he cannot keep his emotional distance anymore; he leaves the camera down. The kicker comes after he leaves the house. He encounters another of the doctors, who just videotaped the death of a young boy who was injured in the attack. She did so at the request of his mother, who told her to do so because “people have to know.” Lefèvre realizes that he is not there to indulge himself. He is there to bring the truth of what is happening to the outside world. Photographing these people in their misery is the only way he can bring them justice. Reinvigorated, he rushes back and photographs the girl as she is being carried out of the house. Irony builds upon irony to create an epiphany, and the protagonist discovers his purpose.
When the photographs work with the narrative, they can be devastatingly effective. This is never more the case than in the book’s final third, in which Lefèvre makes his way back to Pakistan. The nonchalance on display on the journey into Afghanistan comes back to bite Lefèvre, and hard. He is arrogant enough to think that he can safely make his way back to Peshawar independently of the Doctors Without Borders team, and when it is announced that they are going to delay their return by a week, he decides to make the trip on his own. He is woefully unprepared for the journey--he can’t even properly load his supply horse--and he is beset upon by mishap after mishap. In his most despairing moment, he finds himself trapped in a mountain pass during a blizzard. He thinks back on the man who got lost during the trip into Afghanistan, and he understands the man’s terror. Thinking he is about to die, he takes a few last pictures. Three photos, printed across two pages, are of his broken-down supply horse, a trope for his ignorance and failure. This is followed by a double-page shot of the desolate though beautiful Afghan landscape, a land that has finally taught Lefèvre to fear and respect it.
Guibert and Lemercier’s visual inventiveness is on dazzling display in the sequence that frames these photographs. In the panels featuring Lefèvre as makes his way up the pass, Lemercier switches to an almost entirely neutral palette, which makes Lefèvre and his horse look as if they are about to be absorbed into the landscape. As the two continue, the color in the panels becomes increasingly monochromatic, until the two figures are finally silhouettes in a field of greenish gray. Splotches of snow, colored with the same greenish gray, break up the black of the figures, making them look as if they are about to disintegrate. After the photographic pages, the silhouette figures resume, and the panels gradually fade to black as Lefèvre falls asleep. When he is woken up and saved by another caravan, the colors return to their normal palette. The images and coloring brilliantly complement the drama of the sequence as its intensity builds and ebbs.
Moments like these feature great artistry, and coupled with the book having a great subject, many may be tempted to call The Photographer a great work. It isn’t. The supporting characters aren’t distinctive personalities, so it needs Lefèvre to be a great character, and he isn’t self-aware enough to highlight the counterpoints needed for that kind of dynamism. The book is at its most compelling when his contradictions and conflicts take center stage, but these appear only intermittently. They aren’t presented and developed throughout the book. There are also an abundance of narrative red herrings. For example, a good deal of attention is paid to Lefèvre learning to properly speak greetings in Dari (the region’s language), but there is no pay-off later in the book. And when one considers this in addition to the erratic and often frustrating use of Lefèvre’s photographs, one recognizes that as impressive as The Photographer is, it could have been a great deal more.
But what it is remains a great deal. Lefèvre’s account of his experience makes for an engaging story. It also provides a rich, detailed, firsthand view of one of the most intriguing and mysterious countries on the planet. And most auspiciously, it demonstrates the narrative viability of combining photographs with comics. This especially opens doors for photojournalists looking to tell stories with their work; they may no longer have to rely on the awkward combination of photographs and prose featured in most photography collections. A cartoonist can provide a more comfortable and immediate narrative context for their work, and make their pictures richer in the process. The Photographer may be the first work in the comics-meets-photojournalism genre; one doubts it will be the last.