Review by Frank Plowright
For a relatively small country Afghanistan’s indirect influence on world affairs over the past fifty years has been immense. Simplifying the problem, hubris about fits the attitude of powerful nations believing they can conquer, or influence a geographically inhospitable place with an important strategic location where so much power rests with leaders of individual tribes. History has proved time and again that it’s not possible.
Photographer Didier Lefèvre’s journey occurred in 1986 after Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union. He accompanied a team from Médicins Sans Frontières, documenting their humanitarian mission to create a small field hospital deep in remote territory. His photographs and text are accompanied by the illustrations of Emmanuel Guibert over three volumes in France, combined for this English language edition.
The Afghanistan trip was Lefèvre’s first major assignment, and his memory in piecing together lost notes is incredibly detailed, meaning even before Guibert fills in some gaps, the text and photographs prove compelling. An early sequence details how financial agreements are reached. It’s a complex process involving binding one hand from each party together with cloth, while the free hand and expressions add weight to the secretive finger-led negotiations, the text accompanying the personality-rich photographs is essential, as outsiders would otherwise have no idea of what’s going on.
Lefèvre’s photographs were taken before the digital era, on film requiring development, which is why contact sheet inclusions are present, but it doesn’t take a photographic expert to recognise a clear eye for composition and character. At times he talks about his trade and the importance of technique, and page 59 features a magnificent portrait juxtaposing gunmen and a child taken spontaneously.
Guibert appears to see his task as filling gaps. He rarely provides backgrounds, leaving that to the photographs, and keeps the illustrations very simple. It contrasts the complexity of social negotiations introduced before the journey begins, and a sequence late on where he switches to silhouette for a long dark night of the soul is inspired.
The outward journey is an epic trek beyond most people’s realistic comprehension. It’s an exhausting several weeks across very rough territory as part of a convoy with an armed escort, avoiding certain areas, and taking into account disagreements between tribes. It requires letters of recommendation to pass through some areas, and keeping an eye open for Russian helicopters. The hospital is established in an ordinary house, patients arriving by word of mouth and operated on in full view of whoever feels like watching. More than once the first thing the recovering patient asks for is their rifle, which in some cases is responsible for their injury. Some photographs are gruesome, featuring injuries and procedures, but the discomfort they generate is nothing compared to what Lefèvre relates and doesn’t photograph.
As Lefèvre becomes more comfortable he talks with people about their trade, collecting anecdotes, experiences and cultural differences, sometimes debunking what’s believed in the West, yet at other times confirming it, some tales horrific, some enlightening. Those alone make The Photographer a book to be treasured, but there’s much more to be discovered. Having made a foolish decision, Lefèvre certainly discovers a lot about himself in the third chapter’s long trek home.
Well beyond the combination of photography and art, The Photographer is a unique graphic novel, an adventure, an experience and an understanding. Come to it with an open mind and you’ll be rewarded ten times over.