The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders

by Didier Lefèvre, Emmanuel Guibert, and Ferderic Lermercier

The Photographer is a stunning hybrid of photos and sequential art that tells the story of Didier Lefevre as he joins Doctors Without Borders as a photographer in Afghanistan in 1986. The story is divided up into three sections as it was originally published in France as three separate books.

In Part 1 Didier says goodbye to his family in France and arrives in Pakistan to prepare to join the expedition to set up two medical clinics. He gets measured for clothing and helps pack for the expedition, and elaborate process that involves packing items so tightly they can’t move, waterproofing the boxes, and sewing the boxes up in burlap cloth. Didier meets his companions on the expedition. Juliette is the head of the mission. She dresses in men’s clothing and keeps a watchful eye on the horse trading the group must do in order to equip their caravan. He also meets the surgeon John, Regis the anesthesiologist, and a doctor named Robert. The expedition sets off for Afghanistan, trying to avoid landmines and occasionally traveling by night in order to avoid Russians. Didier has to keep sewing up his expensive hiking boots as they get abraded by the rocky terrain. As they travel, they run into refugees fleeing in the opposite direction.

In Part 2 the expedition sets up a hospital in a dusty abandoned building. The operating room of the building is the porch and the waiting room is an open courtyard. The doctors treat a number of wounded patients, and the switch between Guibert’s drawings and photos of the wounded can be quite jarring, especially in the case of a man whose face was ripped apart by shrapnel. Several children are treated for horrible wounds, and the casual way many people handle their guns ensures a steady supply of bullet wounds to treat in addition to everyday medical issues.

Didier does something incredibly frustrating in Part 3 that results in a journey back to Pakistan that is filled with danger. Although when talking about The Photographer I’ve mostly focused on some of the serious medical details, there is also a lot of humor found throughout the book. Didier and Regis joke with each other often. A doctor hangs his stethoscope on the wall of the dusty clinic to make it look like an official hospital. Everyone comments on the diet, and when Didier gets a boil on his arm he finds one of his companions lancing it with a little too much enthusiasm.

When I first picked up The Photographer I was a little skeptical about how well the photos would mesh with Guibert’s art, but I was silly to be concerned about this. The photos were incorporated into the graphic narrative in a variety of ways that just served to bring the story to life. Contact sheets of photos were used in some places as decoration, and as a way of presenting a mini-sequence from an event. The photos were too small to see many of the details, but I was able to see how difficult it would be to coax a donkey across a river. There’s a scrapbook feel to the way the panels are put together, as some of the photos reproduced are circled or crossed out in red pencil, with captions and drawings placed next to them or slightly overlapping. Frequently a new character will be introduced in a photo, and the following comic panel of the character will continue a conversation, which I thought was an interesting way to transition from one medium to another. Seeing the multiple images that go into a contact sheet followed by a larger size photo of the event made me appreciate how much good photography must depend on self-editing to select one image out of many.

The Photographer
is a very powerful story and it is filled with images I won’t forget, like a little girl with her hand stuck in a teapot filled with anesthetic liquid. I didn’t know much about Doctors Without Borders before, and it was interesting to read about the lives of some of the people who choose to provide medical treatment in horrible conditions. This book produced an engrossing autobiography with a combination of photos and drawings that is unique. Something will be very wrong if The Photographer doesn’t win some major graphic novel awards. This is a must read for fans of graphic non-fiction.

Review copy provided by the publisher.