In 1986 Médecins Sans Frontières commissioned French photographer Didier Lefèvre to document the work of an MSF mission in northern Afghanistan, where the Mujahadin were at war with the Soviet forces that had invaded in 1979. It was Lefèvre’s first assignment in Afghanistan and The Photographer, a nonfiction graphic novel, tells the story of his journey with an MSF team from Peshawar, Pakistan to the Yaftal Valley in Afghanistan. The journey would take a day in vehicles on open roads. The direct route, however, is controlled and dangerous, and in order to minimise exposure to the Soviet army, the group travels along a route used by the Afghan resistance to transport arms from Pakistan to conflict areas, a journey that will require three weeks for the caravan of donkeys and horses.
The first part of the story describes preparation and the journey, during which Lefèvre comes to appreciate the MSF doctors’ expertise both in navigating Afghan customs and the brutal physical and psychological stresses of their mission. The second recounts Lefèvre’s time with the mission in Yaftal, where the doctors attend to an unending stream of wounded adults and children, sometimes operating through the night with head-mounted miners’ lamps. The wounds are appalling, as are the conditions under which the doctors work. The final section details Lefèvre’s return to Pakistan independently, a disastrous trip that could well have cost him his life. The book was produced more than a decade after this expedition and it may be this distance that allowed Lefèvre to describe his foolhardiness with humility and self-deprecation. (Lefèvre died in 2007 of heart failure.)
In the last decade, a genre of graphic novels has emerged addressing the personal experience of political events. Among the best-known, and the best, are Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. More ambitious experiments such as Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers explicitly position the graphic novel in relation to both the author’s personal history and to a history of cartoon and comic book art.
The Photographer expands on this model, combining Lefèvre’s narration with Emmanuel Guibert’s illustration of Lefèvre’s experiences and with Lefèvre’s photographs, and the interweaving of these three threads is very effective. Guibert’s masterful visual realisation allows the reader to experience the story simultaneously as both first and third person narrative. Lefèvre and Guibert (and colourist and designer Frédéric Lemercier) have created a work that sets its own terms for how the reader is positioned. Just as a novel creates its own space through the reader’s experiences of the many voices, the multiple narrative methods of The Photographer create their own story space.
The Photographer is also deeply affecting. The book begins and ends with Lefèvre visiting his grandmother in Normandy. All that he witnesses and endures in between these visits seems, at the end of the book, impossibly far away, but the realities of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as revealed in his photographs cannot be unseen. Lefèvre recounts a conversation he has with Régis, one of the doctors, in Palandara. Lefèvre asks him how he can practice with such limited equipment. Régis, who would go on to teach a class on “Medicine in a Sanitary Wasteland” at the University of Bordeaux II, responds: “The basis of medicine, whether here or in France, is always the same, it’s clinical observation, the study of symptoms. It’s the science of reading signs. And you won’t find a better school for that than practicing in a sanitary wasteland, like what we do here.” The parallels to documentary photography are obvious, but The Photographer demonstrates that a graphic novel can also be a powerful vehicle for a study in compassionate observation.