With conflict in Afghanistan at the forefront of the news, the obvious assumption about this story of a photographer’s mission to document the setting up of a remote field hospital, is that it’s a recent story. In fact it’s about a trip that Didier Lefèvre made back in 1986. Afghanistan was at war during this period but the fighting was between occupying Soviet forces and the local Mujahideen resistance – at that time seen by the West as a group of freedom fighters, and supported by the CIA and other Western government organisations as front-line troops in the Cold War fight against Communism.
Lefèvre is a photographer attached to a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) expedition to set up a field hospital in a remote region of Afghanistan, close to the front line of the fighting, to treat casualties of the war whether they’re civilians or combatants from either side.
The journey is a difficult one. Starting off in the mountains of Pakistan, the MSF team must cross into Afghanistan on foot, with a caravan of donkeys carrying everything they’ll need for the month-long journey and all the supplies required to set up a functional hospital. With no further external support, they cross the war zone, taking food and shelter where they can get it.
The first half of the book documents the team’s journey, the second half spans the setting up and running of the hospital – where the MSF medical team save countless lives performing medical miracles in the most basic of conditions. Then we’re treated to Lefèvre’s trip home, which he foolishly decides to make alone, unsupported by the meticulous planning and medical expertise of his colleagues.
Emmanuel Guibert’s treatment of the book is stunning. Lefèvre’s photographs are used liberally, with the gaps being filled by Guibert’s illustrations. Lefèvre’s narration and recalled conversations are as humble and down to earth as the mission is extraordinary.
The book works on many levels. It’s an adventure story about brave souls embarking on a difficult and dangerous journey. It’s also a social snapshot of life in Afghanistan at the time, documenting the people and their stories as they intetact with the mission. Lastly it’s an incredible tale of heroic bravery and determination to help.
My only grumble is that most of the black and white photographs come from Lefèvre’s thumbnail contact sheets, and most are printed far too small. You’ll occasionally see a larger print but not often enough, and the detail in these few larger shots only makes you hungry for more. Clearly more photographs have been used here than would grace a more traditional photography book, but Lefèvre’s photographs are bleak and beautiful, and deserve a little more space.
The package is still impressive though. The end result is more real and powerful than a film or video documentary because you’re that bit closer to the characters – it’s narrated by the man who was there and the illustrations are of him, not an actor pretending to be him.
What with this and Alan’s War, Guibert is proving himself to be one of comics’ best documentary makers. He has an ability to put the reader deep into the stories of others, breaking down the barrier between reader and subject. Most documentary makers must dream of creating something that is as honest, open and empathetic as The Photographer, while Guibert appears to be on something of a roll.