June 11, 2009
When once asked the question, “What would you be if you weren’t a book critic?” I answered, “a photojournalist.” A desire to capture life experience and what it means drives that answer.
The Photographer captures Didier Lefèvre’s 3-month life experience in Afghanistan in 1986, when he joined a humanitarian expedition to set up a field hospital in the northern region. With camera in hand, this photojournalist teamed up with French physicians and nurses with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières and later sold a few photos.
Thirteen years later, he collaborated with friend and graphic artist Emmanuel Guibert to produce this visual treat. The First American Edition was published last month (May 2009).
The story is basically this: Afghanistan is at war with the Soviets. The group enters the country at great risk, treats patients and leaves.
Where it diverges from the ordinary, however, is through the presentation. In a brilliant merging of black and white photos with cartoon storytelling (in graphic novel technique), the book vividly portrays – employing a sobering kaleidoscope of narrative and visual media – the long, harsh journey going inland, the regional people met along the way, the rudimentary operating conditions of the mission hospital and a dangerous return.
More than uniquely crafted photojournalism, this is a powerful take on the practice of medicine in the middle of nowhere, far from the medical technology we take for granted. One of the doctors says to Lefèvre:
“I really like technology. Thank God for CT scans and supplementary tests. But when you don’t have them, you have to learn to do without. And then you re-learn how to pay attention, how to listen to a body, how to interpret a cold sweat or a toenail that’s turning blue. You re-learn the essence of the job.”
The large, cumbersome format and busy, small-print pages make the book appear uninviting. I thought it would be an effort to read, but once I began, the story flowed and the elements that create it disappeared, leaving only the marvelous sensation of the experience.
Engaged in this absorbing book – that is, looking at the photos taken by Didier Lefèvre, reading the cartoons drawn by Emmanuel Guibert and enjoying the artwork of Frédéric Lemercier – I entered Afghanistan … sitting in my reading chair … through a uniquely angled and enlightening lens.