The Photographer – surely a contender for best of year?

Published On September 10, 2009 | By Richard Bruton | Comics, Reviews

The Photographer

Original photographs by Didier Lefevre. Artwork and story by Emmanuel Guibert. Colours and design by Frederic Lemercier.

First Second Books.

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Just the very scale of The Photographer is impressive. And I don’t just mean the oversized, very thick, incredibly well designed physical nature of the book. Just a cursory glance at that stunning cover and a glimpse of the summary on the inside flap should be enough to realise this may be something very special indeed:

“At the end of July 1986, Didier Lefevre left Paris for Afghanistan. He barely returned to tell the tale. It was his first major assignment as a photojournalist, documenting a Doctors Without Borders mission. Camera in hand, Lefevre travelled with a band of doctors and nurses into the heart of Northern Afghanistan, where the war between the Soviet Union and the Afghan Mujahideen was raging.

The mission affected Lefevre as profoundly as the war affected contemporary history. His photographs, paired with the art of Emmanuel Guibert, tell the story of an arduous journey undertaken by men and women intent on mending what others destroy.”

The Photographer, thankfully, lives up to the promise and then some. It’s no short read either, the amount of visual and written information that the reader is presented with, both in Lefevre’s beautiful and haunting photography and Guibert’s incredibly expressive, detailed and emotive artwork sequences makes it really dense, involving and rewarding.

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(Lefevre’s incredible story and his incredible photographs – brought to life by Guibert’s visuals. From The Photographer.)

Lefevre’s journey into Afghanistan was as a photographer to a Doctors Without Borders mission, providing medical staff and support in a clinic right at the heart of the Russian/Afghan-Mujahideen war of the 80s. On his return just six of his 4000 photographs were printed and his tale was only really shared with close friends. Luckily Emmanuel Guibert was one of those who heard it and suggested that they collaborate on a book to document the journey and together, working from Lefevre’s photographic contact sheets and his memory, they produced The Photographer. Lefevre died in 2007 at the age of 49 – but here, in the pages of the Photographer, and in every photograph he took, his story lives on.

The Photographer is split into three parts; in the first we have the journey to the Afghan clinic from Pakistan where we get a flavour of both the conditions and problems Lefevre was to face and the incredible array of personalities he would meet along the way. The journey itself is documented in all its harsh beauty – staggeringly beautiful landscapes are filled with warring factions, Soviet gunships, continual threat from guerillas, arms-smugglers and the Soviet forces and the very real hardships of day to day life on the Afghan trail. We see the brutality and generosity of the Afghani escorts and experience just some of the absolute horrors of the war.

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(Lefevre’s photographs capture all the horrors he was witness to, but his memories, such as this one of the Afghani patient whose first thought is of his father’s well-being, also show us some of the character of the Afghani people.)

In the second part the group arrives at the Afghani clinic and we’re bombarded, as Lefevre was, with the images of the victims of the war. And like any normal, rational human being, it all becomes too much for Lefevre who decides he has to return to Pakistan before the Doctors Without Borders mission is completed. Against all advice he ventures out into the harsh Afghan trail with his Afghani escorts and into a terrifying nightmare of a journey. This third part of The Photographer is more of a journey into Lefevre’s own psyche as we watch him struggle with his escort, struggle with the trip, struggle with his health until finally he is abandoned by his escort and we watch as he finally gives up, settles down and prepares to die on a cold, exposed Afghani mountain pass. At this point his luck finally turns and he is rescued by a group of bandits, who save his life, get him to safety but rob him blind in the process. That he returned home at all is a minor miracle. The section of Lefevre, alone and resigned to die on a thin path high in the Afghan hills is incredibly intense and one of the most harrowing pieces I’ve ever read in comics.

Lefevre’s story is told in a very naturalistic manner, mixing reportage with his innermost feelings. Sometimes the overly detailed reportage slows the narrative down a little too much but when it gets the mix right, as it does more often than not, it’s an incredibly powerful, shockingly honest and often unbearably frank tale. Obviously moments in the clinic with victims of the war being brought in are harrowing but it’s Lefevre’s reactions to these events that make them far more than simple pictures in a newspaper ever could. His photographer’s mind captures the tiny details of the country and it’s people and his recollections are full of the heart and soul of both Afghanistan the country and the Afghani people.

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(Lefevre’s photographs and his memories of Afghanistan, though terrible and horrific in places still manage to capture the intense beauty of the place.)

The staggering power of Lefevre’s story would have come through in a book of the photographs and his own personal commentary but the addition of Guibert’s art adds incredibly to the powerful story of Lefevre’s journey. Again, it would have been easy to have designed the book with pages of art interspersed with pages of photographs but instead the contact sheets and printed photographs are presented as an integral part of the story, adding to the artwork, forming a narrative of their own and turning The Photographer into something truly special.

The design of the whole book is exquisite and Lemercier completely justifies his equal billing on the cover with both photographer and artist. The whole thing is transformed into a stunning physical object of intense beauty, it would have been wonderful before, but the design and colour work by Lemercier elevates it into something truly special.

This should really be one of the books of the year. Sadly I think it’s rather slipped by a lot of people. But I really hope that in years to come The Photographer is mentioned alongside Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis as a major work of comic journalism and a staggering achievement.

(For more details on The Photographer, go to the First Second website for an excerpt of the book and there’s a pdf sampler of the book and it’s background at the Doctor’s Without Borders website here.)

Richard Bruton.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton

– Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he’s written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard’s day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children’s graphic novel library in the country.