This book is a stunning work of beauty. In 1986, French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre took on an assignment to document the efforts of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan. The story is told sometimes through the black and white photographs that Didier took during his trip, and sometimes - or more often - through the form of comic strips.
The concept of a "visual diary" sounds fairly simple, but it is the story that's incredibly absorbing and powerful. Through the
photos and narration, we're immediately transported to Afghanistan, just
right beside Didier Lefèvre. The essential drawings and the raw, evocative photographs work together to transport you precisely there, where the author was. We get to see what he sees, hear what he hears. We walk along the same
hazardous mountain paths, always on the lookout for Russian helicopters.
And we better understand the work done by Doctors Without
Borders, the history of Afghanistan in those terrible years, and most of all the people of Afghanistan. I have to say that despite all the reporting news BBC-style or CNN-style that I have read about Afghanistan, it was only when I read this book that for the first time I had a glimpse of Afghanistan's people as real human beings, and not abstractions or statistics. And this is probably a testament to the power of great comic as an artistic tool, and the most important side of "The photographer".
As for the graphic structure: it is magnificent, to the
point that I was often spending more than 5 minutes just looking at a
single page, to absorb and enjoy every detail. The mix of photos and comics works in such a perfect way, maybe because that's how sometimes our own perception of reality works: when things get too harsh, we find ways to detach, to see things under a different, more bearable light, which is what the comic format does so well. Also, notably, the comic artist is Emmanuel Guibert, who is a master at drawing human beings, expressions, human nuances. So the quality of the art is really high.
In terms of the
content, this is a true modern day adventure with substance. The main
charachter's ineptitude often sticks out, but in the end it's the same
ineptitude that most of us Westerners would display in those
circumstances, and that makes it easier to get drawn into the narration
and live the adventure through his skin. And you can learn something in
At a certain point, Didier decides to go cross back into Pakistan by himself. That's a decision that he would regret for a long time, and that put his life at very serious risk, as documented in the book. It was clearly a silly dedision, also given that what drove that decision was a comment by a
teammate who said "I feel like the real work will start when you leave".
Paraphrasing that in the language of apes (or translating that into its real meaning). that comment was really:
"Didiere, you are here as a tourist, while I am here doing the real
tough work, therefore I am a bigger ape than you and I piss on your head" (yeah, that's how most of our communication would sound like if you were to really strip it of all bullshit). That's not important per
se, but it made me reflect on our human nature, and how - consciously or
unconsciously - we cannot escape our desire to see ourselves "surpass"
the others, to be on some higher level in our own personal narrative of
our life. Even among people who are doing incredibly useful work, like
MSF, everyone needs to find their own "illusion of slight (or great)
superiority" in order to feel good about themselves. Another example of
this phenomenon, as observed in the book, is when one of the doctors
tells Didiere that he does not want to go back to a "cushy" job in a
"cushy" French hospital. As if doctors in Western hospitals were not
just as useful as MSF doctors. Same human nature, right there, over and
over: the need for an "illusion of superiority".
All in all, I've never read anything like "The Photographer". It's pure art, it's raw, powerful and incredibly beautiful. Do yourself a favor and read this true masterwork.