Monday, August 22, 2011

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders by Emmanuel Guibert

Back in 1986, the U.S. public was not really paying much attention to Afghanistan. We had already boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and it had been as long since CBS news anchor Dan Rather had reported from the front where the Afghani Mujahideen were fighting Soviet soldiers. The valleys of Afghanistan were remote, mostly unknown in the West, and very dangerous. Among the few outsiders deep in the country were CIA spies, intrepid reporters, and the French volunteers of Medecins Sans Frontieres, known to the English-speaking world as Doctors Without Borders. Wanting the world to see the desperate need for humanitarian assistance, Medecins Sans Frontieres hired a young photographer, Didier Lefevre, to accompany a mission to Zaragandara in the Valley of Yaftal, in the northeast region of Afghanistan, near Tajikistan. It took more than a month to travel by donkey caravan from Peshawar in Pakistan through many mountain passes, many over 1600 feet. Lefevre took photos all the way.

In 2003, French graphic artist Emmanuel Guibert, his friend Lefevre, and colorist Frederic Lemercier published the first of three installments of Le Photographe, which combine Lefevre's original photographs with Guibert's drawings to tell of Lefevre's nearly-fatal adventure, a story that he had told only to his closest friends for years. It was not a story that he wanted shared as long as he intended to return to Afghanistan, which he often did before September 11, 2001. The English translation The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders was published to critical acclaim in 2009.

Now in 2011, after American and other NATO troops have spent nearly ten years in Afghanistan with little prospect of beating Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces, The Photographer is very relevant. Not much other the names of the foreign forces has really changed in the situation. In the book, Lefevre is almost naive in his outlook, committing himself to months of hardship for the sake of his profession. The poverty, prejudice, injustice, and sheer danger of the Afghani countryside only become apparent to him after he passes a point of no return. Through the pages of The Photographer, readers learn as Lefevre learns.

The drawings are easier to comprehend than the photos in some cases. They give the photos context. The photos give the book impact. It is a particularly effective presentation that should move many readers.

Guibert, Emmanuel. The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders. First Second, 2009. ISBN 9781596433755.

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