I’ve taken up an interest in graphic novels lately, and while I was scanning that section at the library awhile back, I happened upon The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, which immediately attracted my interest. I’ve been intrigued with Doctors Without Borders for many years anyway, but as I flipped through the book on the library floor, I was drawn in by the creative mix of photography and classic graphic novel art.
The Photographer is the story of photojournalist Didier Lefèvre’s journey into Afghanistan with a humanitarian expedition of Doctors Without Borders, the medical organization that ventures into disaster zones and high-risk situations to provide care to those who need it most. The expedition took place in the fall of 1986, when the Soviet Union occupied parts of the country and long before the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
At the beginning of the book, Lefèvre is in Peshawar, Pakistan, preparing to embark on the journey into Afghanistan with a Doctors Without Borders team. He is admittedly quite naïve about the political situation, geography and difficulties of what is to come, but it is because he is viewing this time and space in wide-eyed wonder and curiosity that we as readers are treated to insights about even the smallest, day-to-day details that Lefèvre notices.
The journey into Afghanistan is not easy. It involves several weeks of strenuous walking, the threat of bombing from the Russians, exhaustion, hunger and difficulty with communication (Lefèvre only knows a few basic words of the local language). Along the way, he documents the expedition with his camera. We follow the feisty animals, learn about village hierarchy, witness graphic injuries and begin to understand the problems plaguing the Afghanistan countryside.
Once Lefèvre and his team reach their intended destination, the focus turns more toward the work of Doctors Without Borders. It’s hard not to be impressed with how much they are able to do with so little. In this part of The Photographer, Lefèvre digs deeper into the customs and traditions of the local people, and readers are given the opportunity to learn more about culture in Afghanistan.
Despite what Lefèvre has learned during his time in Afghanistan, he makes the decision to return to Peshawar on his own, and it is during this time that the journey hits its lowest point.
The Photographer is a fascinating read from beginning to end, with a good mix of photography, artwork (created by Emmanuel Guibert) and strong storytelling. It is a bit bulky at nearly 270 pages, but it is split into three easily digestible sections: The trip in, at the Doctors Without Borders medical site and the trip back out.
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