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

(First Second; US: May 2009)

At first glance, it would seem that The Photographer is a revolutionary work in its attempt to represent war via comics. The back cover of the English language version boasts glowing appraisals from NPR correspondents, The New York Times Book Review, and even Rachel Maddow and Angelina Jolie. But a look at other comic releases in the past ten years or so reveals to us that, along with the memoir, war has been a well-visited subject/ theme in the world of comics.


Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine, nearly all of the comics published by Guy Delisle, extremely popular graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and even old Marvel and DC releases like GI Combat or Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos have treated the subject of war in various countries through various lens. So what is it about The Photographer that makes it seem so particularly effective in its story-telling, and so gripping to both seasoned comics readers as well as those who would usually pass up the comics section of their local Borders or Barnes and Noble’s? One reason may be that it is not exactly a comic book.


Rather than its subject matter, it is the interesting and unique means through which The Photographer tells its story that makes it so effective and worth talking about. A collaborative project between documentary photographer Didier Lefevre, cartoonists Emmanuel Guibert and Frederic Lemercier, The Photographer recounts Didier Lefevre’s time spent as the documentary photographer for a Medecins Sans Frontieres (the French version of Doctors Without Borders) mission to Afghanistan in 1986. The book is set up so that Lefevre’s photographs are set side-by-side with a re-telling of his time in Afghanistan through panels drawn by Guibert and Lemercier.


Page to page, however, the set-up is not static. Often the reader is presented with a photograph or two, followed by a panel or two, and so-on, but there are stretches in the story as well that are solely told in photographs as well as presented only in comic form. Less frequent are pages that are almost solely text, but they too, occasionally appear.


This collaborative and multi-media presentation is important for a number of reasons. The collaborative nature of the project draws attention to the fact that war stories exist on a number of levels. Readers receive them through both first-hand accounts and memoirs, like Didier’s portion, but they are received too, through re-tellings either through history books, television news, or even oral histories like Guibert’s re-iteration of the stories in comic form as Didier, a personal friend of his, told him.


The multimedia aspect of the project, however, is perhaps even more intriguing. Through its usage of photography and comics, The Photographer is able to reflect on how each of these mediums are able to tell a story and what might be some of both the strengths and shortcomings of each form. Photographs and panels comment on each other and frame our understanding of each respective form. 


In his essay “What Is a Photograph?” Steven Edwards notes that the common conception of the photograph that dominates our culture is that “the camera never lies”. He furthers this argument by stating “what needs accounting for is the peculiar form of the photographic image, which appears not to be an image at all; rather, it seems like direct representation of lived reality. Photography’s effects, for good or ill, derive from this constitutive condition.”


That is to say although rationally one understands that the photo to be separate from that which it depicts, the signifying line between the photograph and the event captured on film becomes very thin as to almost divorce the photographer from the process. Without the artistic mediation of the photographer, the photograph then becomes just as Edwards explains ‘a direct representation of lived reality,’ without acknowledgement of purpose, manipulation, or contextualization on the photographer’s part.


By placing photographs alongside comic panels, The Photographer implicitly challenges the conception of photography as presenting objective truths. Often times in The Photographer , the comic panels following a given photograph serve to further elucidate what the photograph could not. One instance of this is a sequence of panels in which Guibert illustrates Lefevre’s abandonment in a remote part of the Afghan mountains by crooked guides who were supposed to ensure his safety over the border to Pakistan. For about 10 pages of panels, the reader encounters Lefevre in utter despair and frustration trying to find his way back through the mountains by himself, only to eventually become so weary that he decides to document his surroundings.


The final two panels before a series of full page photographs have Lefevre in shadow with the caption that reads “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.” But the photographs following seem anything but full of despair. They depict his horse in an almost triumphant sort of pose as well as a beautiful, sprawling landscape of the mountains. Neither of these accounts are false, however. The panels here frame the photographs to show the terrible conditions that can arise, despite the beauty of the surroundings, while the photographs serve to frame the panels in a different light as well. It is not the case that comics are asserted as better able to tell the truth than photographs here, though.


Photographs similarly challenge what is presented in comic form throughout the book. Instead, through the use of these two mediums, The Photographer is able to show, rather than tell, how multiple narratives always exist in the recounting of war. That is to say, through words and pictures (both drawn and photographic) Lefevre, Guibert, and Lemercier draw attention to the subjective frame—whether it be around a panel, a page, or a 20mm lens—that is always mediated by our ever-changing historical, personal, and political perspectives.

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