Review: The Photographer by Guibert, Lefèvre, & Lemercier
By Didier Lefèvre, Emmanuel
Guibert, and Frederic Lemercier
First Second, May 2009, $29.95
Lefèvre was a French photojournalist – he died, unexpectedly
and too young, in 2007 – and this book is an unusual combination of drawn
comics and [[[fumetti]], telling the true
story of part of his life. In 1986, Lefèvre took the first of several trips
into Afghanistan with the group Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF, aka Doctors
Without Borders), to report on the work of the MSF during the Soviet
occupation, particularly on one particular mission to set up a field hospital
in Zaragandara in the Yaftal valley up in the mountains of the north.
Nearly twenty years later, after hearing stories of that
trip many times, Lefèvre’s friend Emmanuel
Guibert, a well-known cartoonist and graphic novelist, turned that trip into
comics form, using Lefèvre’s words and photos.
As this book credits itself, it’s “A story lived, photographed, and told by
Didier Lefèvre, written and drawn by Emmanuel Guibert, laid out and colored by
Frederic Lemercier, and translated from the French by Alexis Siegel.” (I think
that means that Lemercier did the panel breakdowns from Guibert’s script – for
those who obsess about comics workflow – but that’s not completely clear.)
So every page of [[[The Photographer]]] is a comics page, with captions, panels, borders
and word balloons. But many of those pictures are not Guibert’s drawings, but Lefèvre’s photos – used as panels (wordless; the
captions and balloons never overlie the photography) or in strips of film to
convey time passing or just the atmosphere of a scene. It’s a style that
quickly fades into the background, but it gives The Photographer the power of a documentary – we see these people’s
real faces, and the real landscape they inhabit, as well as Guibert’s versions
Lefèvre and the MSF team assembled in Peshawar, Pakistan at
the end of July (about this time of year, twenty-three years ago), and snuck
over the border with a heavily armed caravan of Afghans supplying the rebels –
the border is officially closed to Westerners like them by the puppet
government the Russians have installed in Kabul. It was a long, tough, trip, on
foot for a solid month up and down mountains, often through partially cleared
minefields and several times so dangerous that they could only travel at night.
The trip in itself would be a story, but that’s only the
first third of The Photographer – and Lefèvre’s return trip will be even more difficult,
partly due to his own impatience. The middle of the book concentrates on the
work of MSF in Afghanistan then – and, by extension, everywhere it operates and
has operated for the last two decades. Lefèvre’s
telling, and Guibert’s shaping of it, is detailed but matter-of-fact, focused
on the day-to-day life of the French doctors and their Afghan patients.
The Russians, and the war, stay in the distance, but the
damage their mines do walks in the door of the clinic every day. (As do the
usual rural mishaps, like broken legs and men who have just shot themselves
while posing with an AK-47, and various other ailments.) The tribal
organization of the Afghans adds its own problems – chiefs have to be treated
better than their men, and the people on one side of a valley might be having a
low-level fight with the people on the other side – but Lefèvre comes through
it all clear-eyed and ready to document everything he sees.
So many non-fiction graphic novels are either bland history
for young readers or tedious navel-gazing by shut-in cartoonists in their
twenties that it’s a rare treat to come across a book like The Photographer, the story of a trip that really was worth telling at this length and with this level of
detail. Lefèvre’s pictures and Guibert’s art
mesh into one story, and what they tell is fascinating.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for
nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science
Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been
reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal,
mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to
be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or
email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.