Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"It was great mum, nothing bad happened to me."
"I take out one of my cameras. I choose a 20mm lens, a very wide angle, and shoot from the ground. To let people know where I died."
I approached this book with equal anticipation and trepidation. I was thinking, plus points, it's an acclaimed autobiographical work about a French photographer seconded to Doctors Without Borders who accompanies a humanitarian mission deep into the heart of Soviet occupied Afghanistan. And the illustrated sequences are drawn and the work as a whole edited by Emanuel Guibert, who was responsible for the excellent ALAN'S WAR. Possible negative point, it's got a lot of photographs in it. Arrrgh, I become very concerned when photographs start cropping up in comics as I'm always minded of several universally ill-advised and gruesome attempts at photo-stories I've seen over the years, the nadir of which surely has to be Nemesis meeting Torquemada in the original Forbidden Planet store (unless I've finally become Future-Shocked and lost it completely and that never happened?).
Anyway I digress, and I'm very happy to report that THE PHOTOGRAPHER is actually an almost completely successful and certainly very innovative fusion of the two media. Although I get the impression that many of Guibert's illustrations must have been crafted directly from Lefevre's photographs, his relatively sparse art style sympathetically coloured in a desert camo-pallette by Lemercier, stands in excellent juxtaposition to the sudden bursts of bustling action-packed detail you get in Lefevre's stark black and white photographs, all of which are placed in appropriately sized panels and in sequential context to make for almost seamless transitions to and from the two media. Where unfortunately it very occasionally comes unstuck, for me at least, is where there are particularly long, uninterrupted sequences of photographs. Sometimes the technique works brilliantly, as in the example of the operation on the 16-year-old boy who has had half his jaw blown off by an artillery shell, or in capturing panoramic vistas encountered heading up a mountain pass on the caravan trail. But sometimes it just seems like several portraits or group shots have been shoe-horned in for the sake of it and I found myself moving very quickly on to the next bit of true narrative. Perhaps I'm being unfair because this is meant to be in part a celebration of the work of a great photographer as well as a very informative story about one man's adventures and the unsung work of the courageous volunteers of Medicine Sans Frontiers. It really is gripping stuff, and an absolutely fascinating look into a completely different world which given the still unstable situation in Afghanistan probably hasn't changed very much.
The book is split into three sections, the first of which is the arduous month-long journey moving equipment up and down treacherous mountain passes by donkey and dodging Russian patrols to reach the location of the intended MSF field hospital, where the doctors' remarkable work forms the second part of the book. My favourite part, though, is the third which narrates Lefevre's ill-advised attempt to return back to the MSF headquarters in Pakistan by himself rather than waiting for the rest of the MSF team. You just know it's not a good idea and sure enough pretty much everything that could go wrong does go wrong: abandonment by his guides, kidnapping, extortion, severe illness, nearly dying, corrupt police; basically everything you should expect if you're stubborn enough, or just plain stupid enough, to try and travel around Afghanistan on your own. Obviously he survived and made it back to give his mum a somewhat sanitised version of his trip, hence the opening quote, but clearly it was a rough time as fourteen of his teeth fell out following his return to France, amongst other the ailments he developed due to the stress of it. Sadly he also passed away fairly recently aged just 49 of heart failure and you cant help wondering just how much his time in Afghanistan contributed to that.
Fans of autobiographical or historical and political works such as anything by Joe Sacco (PALESTINE, THE FIXER, SAFE AREA GORAZDE) or Guy Delisle (SHENZHEN, PYONG YANG, BURMA) will love THE PHOTOGRAPHER and I think yet again Guibert deserves applause for bringing to our attention another fascinating story just like ALAN'S WAR which would otherwise just have been lost forever.