The Photographer

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

story and photos – Didier Lefèvre    writing and art – Emmanuel Guibert   layout and colors – Frédéric Lemencier

Alexis Siegel – English Translator              all images © 2009 by First Second

"Me? But I've Never Shot at Anything."

The Photographer plays around with the hoary trope that shooting guns and shooting cameras are roughly equivalent. But Guibert, Lefèvre, and Lemencier do not resurrect the trope for nothing; they frame the camera’s complicity as part of a larger narrative about Western responsibility toward the rest of the world.

Didier was a photographer for Doctors Without Borders. In the 1980s he accompanied them on a trip into Afghanistan to deliver medical supplies and operate clinics. The Photographer presents this story through his photography, mixed with a cartoon narrative.

At first the split seems haphazard. The photographs appear next to the artwork, seemingly just another way of telling the story. I needed a magnifying glass to properly examine many of them. Occasionally some photographs get better treatment, with striking results:

MUJ'For instance, here’s one shot of the armed men who protected Doctors Without Borders on their journey through Afghanistan. The framing is weird, lopping off the tops of their heads. The child stares up at them as the camera does (Didier remarks that the Mujahadeen like to be shot from below). They’re also framed between a pair a trees, and we’re invited to compare their solidity to those trees. We learn that Didier had just woken up when he took this shot, which adds something to our appreciation of it as well.

But mainly the photographs in this book convey a few different metaphors for what cameras do.

Camera as pure subjectivity Most of the photographs do not appear on full or even half pages, so their effect is murkier than mere documentation. As Didier’s eyes, they’re glimpses into a subjective consciousness, unaltered by retrospective commentary.* While the cartoon panels contain captions and speech balloons, the photographs are unmarked. In this context that gives them an underwear feeling-a soundless world.

This kind of contextless observation becomes important later in the story, when Didier decides to return to Pakistan on his own. When he experiences hardship on this return journey, he discovers how narrow his experience of the journey really has been. All along, he had taken the Afghani hospitality and protection for granted. He thought he was contributing to the welfare of the country, when it had been contributing to his own welfare all along. When he encounters men on this return trip, he alternately complains, lies, and begs for help. And he finally begins to understand why some of them act the way they do. Early in the book, he looks disparagingly on the way the Muj’ treat their horses–later, he finds himself beating a horse to keep it moving.

Camera as War Corrective Of course, Didier is there to document the work Doctors Without Borders do. It’s explicit publicity work for the organization, which can be used for PR and fundraising. Therefore, shooting things is a way of contributing to their continued existence. Documenting people and situations is also a way of storing them longer than they might normally survive–chronicling the people of Afghanistan might mean preserving the memory of them. In the mid-80s, Afghanistan was at war with the Soviet Union and its eventual victory was not a foregone conclusion.

Another layout choice makes this camera’s role more interesting. The authors do not attempt to render the wounded patients and the ministrations of the doctors in cartoon form. Nearly every injury and its care appear in the photographs, as if there was a prohibition on doing so. This choice may have been made because Lefèvre happened to take a lot of these shots, but there are some missing pieces which would help demonstrate the work being done. I’m still sussing out what this means.

But a camera is only really separated from a gun by how one uses it. At one point, one of the doctors explains how his profession is possible in places like Afghanistan:

medicalsemioticsThe photographer must master the same diagnostic skills as the physician. The Photographer is dedicated to Didier’s progress on that journey, combining the subjectivity of the lens with the corrective goal of the progressive journalist.

The artwork buttresses the theme of correction in fascinating ways. At one point, Didier remarks that he thinks he’s read about this adventure in Tintin already. The comparison with Hergé is interesting because Guibert demonstrates both debts and departures from that cartoonist’s style. Guibert uses forceful lines, a little stronger than anything Hergé attempts, but they share a similar approach to depicting the limbs of the body. Guibert is more interested in realism, though, and can produce fairly realistic views with a minimum of linework.

The character of Tintin began his career as a photojournalist doing a story on the Soviets, so there’s a strong parallel between him and Didier. Tintin could be fairly imperialist and insensitive to nonwhites, so when Didier falls into some of the same views at times, it’s instructive of the persistence of cultural blindness. But Didier’s travels help him shed some of this blindness as well.

Lemencier’s work with a limited palette is reminiscent of Bill Watterson’s later color strips of Calvin + Hobbes. He makes two or three shades of desert do a lot of work. And Guibert and Lemencier’s night illustrations are a highlight of the book:

moredarknessIn short, The Photographer is an extremely successful examination of the choices one makes and the knowledge one needs to document a cause. While it’s less a showcase for photography than a behind-the-scenes narrative of how it came to be, that narrative is engaging and at times thrilling.

* of course, the selection of the shots and their placement in the book are the results of retrospection. Within the narrative of the story, however, the photographs appear as Didier’s spontaneous observations.

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