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by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier
First Second, 288 pages, $29.95.
We like to think that a trip to Europe or colorful tourist spot or even simply tooling around the North American continent makes us “well traveled.” We come back from our trip with our photos and souveniers and tell our friends and anyone else who’ll listen how broadening our trip was and how people are really just the same no matter where you go.
But there are countries in the world where you can get murdered for saying you don’t believe in God, or assaulted or worse for admitting that you’re over 30 years old and unmarried. There are places where the terrain is so inhospitable that merely staying out overnight can be a death sentence, and when you get lost, they don’t send out a search party. They just assume you’re dead.
This is the landscape, both geographical and cultural, brought to life in The Photographer, a stunning new graphic novel by Emmanuel Guibert, creator of last year’s equally impressive Alan’s War. Like the best journalistic pieces, it indelably captures a hostile but occasionally warm country at a unique period of time, where war and desolation has left its residents even more isolated than before.
The Photographer is the story of Guibert’s friend, Didier Lefevre. A professional photojournalist, Lefevre traveled to Afghanistan in 1986, during the country’s volatile war with the USSR, to record the efforts of a team of doctors and nurses from Doctors Without Borders journeying (illegally it should be noted) into the country to bring aid to those in the most rural and war-torn areas.
The book opens with Lefevre arriving in neighboring Pakistan and preparing for the trip. He bonds with the rest of the DWB team, meets some colorful characters and is upbeat though nervous about what lies ahead. Initially all goes well, though the days-long hike is strenuous. But there is lots to experience, the landscape is beautiful and Lefevre has his a number of experienced guides to lead him to his destination.
Along the way, he takes lots of pictures, most of which are directly incorporated into Guibert’s story (the late Lefevre also provides the first-person narration). Occasionally the photos overwhelm the art, with either thumbnail-like snapshots or one or two large images taking up half or even the entire page. Often Guibert’s art seems in service to Lefevre’s photography, instead of the other way around.
Things go well when the team reaches their destination, though the work is hard, in unsanitary conditions and at times emotionally devastating. Wounded children are often brought in. One girl is paralyzed by shrapnel. An older boy has had his lower jaw blown off. A todder and a teen-age girl are severely wounded by a bombing raid. Lefevre captures it all in haunting and sometimes gruesome detail.
The Afghan people are warm, friendly and eager to have medical assistance but there are obvious boundaries that cannot be crossed. Girls and women, for example, must always be examined by a doctor with their clothes on. Their ways can seem inscrutable and frustrating at times as well, as when a group of men insist on letting a wounded man be tended to by a bonesetter, worsening the wounded man’s condition. As likeable the Afghan people can be, their culture seems extremely alien and difficult to decipher to Lefevre.
Then it’s time to leave. Lefevre is eager to go, but the MSF team wants to take the long way around, stopping to visit a few more villages before heading back to Pakistan. Didier, however, can’t wait any more. He has roughed it enough and decides to try to head back to the border on his own, with a small caravan to guide him. And it’s here that things start to go horribly, almost irrevocably wrong.
Guibert brings the same delicate, lyrical touch he used in Alan’s War to this material, adopting a flat, photo- realistic style with thick, heavy contour lines that just barely suggest a ligne claire influence (and indeed, at one point Lefevre gives a shout-out to Tintin in Tibet, linking his adventures with that of the globe-trotting boy reporter). He alternates between heavily-detailed and sparse, sometimes blank, backgrounds, depending upon the situation, all the while incorporating Lefevre’s original photos (and, it should be mentioned, Lemercier’s excellent colors) into the story.
But, again, I want to stress that this book is a true collaboration and not merely Guibert’s interpretation of a story he heard. By the end of the book, the photography and art no longer seem seperate but have merged into each other, the one constantly relying on the other to help move the story forward. Indeed, Lefevre’s photographs at times become comic panels themselves, detailing in rapid progression setting and movement.
It’s hard for me to write about The Photographer and not lapse into hyperbole. It’s a stunning achievement and the best book I’ve read so far this year. I can’t imagine any other graphic novel coming out this year having as much artistry or insight, or forcing me to think about the world and its vast environs. Ultimately the book reminds me (if I wasn’t aware of it before) just how dangerous travel can be, just how callous and unforgiving nature is to our suffering, and how brave and compassionate those who risk all of it to aid their fellow human beings are.