By Douglas Wolk
Sunday, May 31, 2009
By Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier
Translated from the French by Alexis Siegel
267 pp. $29.95
In 1986, the French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre joined a Doctors Without Borders mission to Afghanistan. It was a dangerous place even then -- a country where the Cold War had turned viciously hot after the Soviet invasion of 1979. Lefèvre stayed only a few months, but beset by disease, brutal weather and extortionist police, he barely survived the experience. Still, he brought back 4,000 photographs from his trip and returned to Afghanistan seven more times before his death in 2007.
Originally published in three French volumes between 2003 and 2006, "The Photographer" is a riveting account of Lefèvre's first journey and his experiences in Zaragandara, the Afghan town where Doctors Without Borders set up a makeshift hospital. Lefèvre's blisteringly forceful black-and-white photographs, and sometimes his contact sheets, appear on nearly every page of the book. So does Emmanuel Guibert's artwork. The cartoonist adapted his friend's memories of the trip into comics form, filling in the spaces between photos with sequences that bind the story together (and providing, understandably, almost every image we see of Lefèvre himself) and explain what was happening at less photogenic moments.
Guibert develops a new visual style for each project he draws: He's also the artist behind last year's "Alan's War," another superb piece of oral history in comics form. Here his approach is rough and blobby, clearly modeled on the contours of photographs but sparely rendered and showing spatters of ink. Seen next to Lefèvre's finely shaded photos, Guibert's idiomatic line work emphasizes that what we're seeing in the comics sections of "The Photographer" isn't quite real: It's history recollected and reconstructed.
That's the formal paradox that drives the book. Lefèvre came along on the mission so that he could bring back images that would bear witness to what was happening in Afghanistan, but the photographs that he published immediately afterward couldn't say nearly as much as does the combination of his work and the approximations and memories Guibert has woven around and through it. A cartoonist has more power over narrative than a photographer, and some of Lefèvre's pictures make more sense in the context of a narrative, including a haunting shot of a horse groom who'd accidentally gotten separated from a caravan and survived to tell his story: The scene's pacing and text deepen its meaning by making evident exactly how close he'd come to doom.
Much of "The Photographer" is fascinating on the strength of Lefèvre's experiences alone. He recounts learning to pack perfectly stuffed, watertight boxes, getting outfitted for Afghan-style clothing (and buying a woman's chadri) to avoid arousing suspicion, crossing the border into Afghanistan by a hazardous off-road path to avoid the Russian military. The middle section of the book depicts the work the doctors had come to do, but also Lefèvre's discovery of the bizarre cultural and economic realities of war zones -- including the fact that the Afghan medical team could occasionally arrange for assistance from Russian doctors.
Sometimes, the precision and emotional wallop of Lefèvre's photographs cut more deeply than words or drawings could: There's a nearly unbearable sequence of a wounded child having her burn cleaned, and remarkable images of a couple of Afghan soldiers laughing about their injuries and of a local chief posing with a gun and some plastic flowers.
But this is as much the show of Guibert and colorist/designer Frédéric Lemercier as it is Lefèvre's, particularly in the book's final third, which concerns the photographer's disastrous solo journey back from Zaragandara as he was running out of film. The artists take over altogether for a long, dramatic sequence in which Lefèvre and his horse, abandoned by their escorts, struggle up a mountain in a blizzard as the sky darkens. For a few pages, Guibert's scratchy renderings are half-obliterated by patches of white; then all we see are spotty silhouettes against a darkening green background for a few pages, until Lefèvre abandons hope and pulls out his camera. At last, we see what he feared would be his final photographs: a series of harrowing, low-angle shots of the exhausted horse; and the largest image in the book, a two-page spread of the gorgeous, murderous Afghan landscape, its foreground a blur and its background receding into the weather.
Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean."