The Right Footage

Illustrating the Archive: Didier Lefèvre and ‘The Photographer’

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
© Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Frédérique Lemercier, Le Photographe (France: Dupuis, 2010).

From the vibrant city of Peshawar to the remote town of Zaragandara in Afghanistan, The Photographer transports the reader into war zones where fascination and indignation mingle together. The book tells the true story of photojournalist Didier Lefèvre whose job was to cover a three-month MSF (Doctors without Borders) mission in the summer of 1986. Following the Soviet invasion of 1979, countless Afghans suffered from the ravaging conflict. MSF was there to rescue the helpless and heal innocent citizens who were injured. In this engaging graphic novel, war is not glamorous. The reader witnesses the atrocity engendered by war as Lefèvre walks from village to village, observing and recording the distress of innocents. Guibert shows the conflict through the lens of a vulnerable photographer, for whom danger is omnipresent and whose fear and tension are highly perceptible. As immersive as it is intense, The Photographer is in line with other classic graphic novels such as Maus (1986-91), Palestine (1993-95), and Persepolis (2000-03). 

cover of the comic book The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederique Lemercier that includes archival photographs and illustrations

© Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Frédérique Lemercier, Le Photographe (France: Dupuis, 2010).

A unique form of storytelling

The idea of creating a graphic novel that would interweave Lefèvre’s traumatic black-and-white photographs and illustrations came from Lefèvre’s cartoonist pal, Emmanuel Guibert. In The Photographer, Guibert adapts his friend’s recollections into comics form and incorporates sequences that connect the story together. In order to reconstruct and transcribe Lefèvre’s trip as faithfully as possible, Guibert claimed that he wrote the 267-page book as though he were in the photographer’s shoes. His own mission was to get immersed into the journey he had not lived, and experience it through Lefèvre’s lens and oral histories. Such a reenactment led to this original melange of drawings and authentic pictures, coexisting side by side. Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for The Times describes this innovative blending by stating, “A cartoonist has more power over narrative than a photographer, and some of Lefèvre’s pictures make more sense in the context of a narrative.” This statement might explain why the 4,000 photographs Lefèvre brought back from his perilous trip did not immediately draw attention. Now embedded into a sequential narrative, they reach their potential and accomplish their initial aim.

All of this was made possible thanks to Lefèvre who allowed his long-time friend to pick up his archival pictures and use them as he pleased. Guibert spoke of his amazement and declared, “their [photographers’] job is as much to shoot as to choose.” Thus, with a lot of pressure on his shoulders, he conceived the graphic novel alone. On many occasions did he nonetheless consult Lefèvre for feedback regarding the rendering of his friend’s journey as well as his choice of photographs.

History told through Lefèvre’s archive images

The book, both charming and touching, is as much about the fate of individuals and the Afghan culture as it is about war and chaos. When Didier Lefèvre lands in the exotic city of Peshawar, he discovers a foreign, yet fascinating metropolis. With the help of two physicians from MSF, he purchases a pakol (a Pakistani hat) and a pashtun dress, to bundle up against the brutal weather and to blend in with the crowd. Shortly after, the team introduces him to Juliette Fournot, the head of mission. Juliette has a pivotal role in the book: besides speaking fluent Dari and commanding the respect of both the French and Afghans, including Muslim chiefs and warlords, she brings a fresh way of looking at mostly Muslim Afghan culture and shatters unfounded stereotypes.

Because of her close bond with Afghanistan, a country in which she spent her teenage years, she recorded the misery along with Lefèvre. Her tapes eventually led to the creation of a forty-minute documentary entitled A ciel ouvert (2006).

The purpose of this harrowing film is to raise awareness on a conflict perpetrated in isolation, away from media coverage. It attests to the destruction of innocent bodies and souls, who sometimes perished under bullets and bombshells. Hence the necessity for MSF to set up a makeshift hospital in the hard-to-access town of Zaragandara in northern Afghanistan.

The celebration of historical truth

In The Photographer, the story is told with sensitivity and impartiality. Lefèvre offers glimpses of the Pakistani and Afghani culture through intimate close-ups and distant shots, and gives insight of the Afghan mountains and overall landscape via panoramic photos. Yet, the harshness of the mission, coupled with the behaviors of Afghan people who can be at once brave and generous as well as ruthless and menacing, quickly overshadow those idyllic moments.

The last part of the book relates Lefèvre’s horrific and nearly fatal attempt to walk back to Pakistan, ahead of the group. Trapped in the mountains, the photographer captured what he thought was his last shot. Filled with despair, he claimed, “I take out one of my cameras. I choose a 20-millimeter lens, a very wide angle, and shoot from the ground (…) to let people know where I died.” His extensive landscape photograph, the only one to feature on two pages, is purely sublime: it shows the treacherous nature of the Afghan mountains that can be both wonderful and merciless, and emphasizes this feeling of loneliness endured by Lefèvre.

The peculiarity of the graphic novel is that it does not show any fighting, although it indirectly deals with war. In the book, there is no blood splattering, no war heroes, and no winners to celebrate. The Photographer is the true story of those who confront the tough reality of war, living among the wounded and the weak, and testifying to the lack of medical assistance. Those who come back from such traumatic experiences, like Lefèvre, are often left dumbstruck. Before he died on January 29th, 2007, he returned to Afghanistan seven more times. His desire was to tell the stories of those he had met and who he could not forget.

Leave a Reply