In 1986, photographer Didier Lefèvre was hired to join Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) on a mission into Afghanistan, which was in the middle of a war with the Soviet Union. MSF had roots in the country but had been forced to leave because of escalating violence that had resulted in the deaths of some of their aid workers. With the country now at war, the need for medical care was imperative, and MSF intended to go back into the heart of the country to establish a hospital.
Getting to their destination was a very dangerous journey that required the help of the Mujahideen. They left Pakistan in the middle of the night and traveled by foot across the border and higher into the rugged mountain terrain of Afghanistan. It was Lefèvre’s job to photograph the journey entire journey, and unlike the others in the MSF team, he didn’t know anything about the culture or speak the language. The team was led by a woman named Juliette, and it is through Lefèvre’s eyes that we see Juliette negotiate with everyone along the way, from humble nomads to wealthy landowners and Mujahideen fighters; it’s a rare sight, considering she’s a petite white woman dealing with leaders from a male-dominated culture. Lefèvre is equally shocked when he sees their final destination: the war-zone hospital they establish in Afghanistan looks nothing like the Western hospitals he’s accustomed to. It’s a life-changing and physically taxing experience for him, and the treacherous journey back is equally formative.
The book is based on Lefèvre’s diaries, recollections, and photographs, but it’s illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert and colored by Fréderic Lemercier. The mixture of illustrations, photography, and narrative is remarkable; I’ve never seen a book quite like it (click images to enlarge):
This book quickly became one of my favorite nonfiction comics ever. There’s so much to love about it: the art, the inside look at humanitarian work in a war zone, the history it conveys. I especially loved the way the book was able to convey Lefèvre’s culture shock without exoticizing all the people he came across. It’s powerful stuff.
The Photographer was first published in three French volumes from 2003-2006. It was published in English in 2009 by First Second.