It’s not what you think. That’s the thing that came to my mind when I began reading this photography book. It’s not really a photography book, it’s an essay, it’s a comic, it’s contemporary, it’s graphics, it’s an illustrated adventure from 1986 and it’s a true story.
I began reading it as I had requested it from the publisher for review. Most of the time I browse books, assimilate the essence of it, write about it and move to the next project. Not so this time.
First of all I have great respect for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an organization that I supported when photographer Fernando Bengoechea (one of my photographers) vanished in the Asian Tsunami. The work that they do can’t be put into words. I pay my respect to any nurse or doctor who will agree to be smuggled into a country torn apart by war (Afghanistan) so that they can set up hospitals and provide medical care in the most rudimentary conditions. To go places where the locals might not even have a word called “healthcare” is an undertaking far beyond my Westerner imagination. This is the work of pure love, dedication and it holds a sense of purpose that most people might not ever find in a lifetime. This comes through clearly throughout the book.
Photojournalist Didier Lefèvre joined a team of Doctors Without Borders in 1986 and followed them into Afghanistan to illustrate their efforts to help ease the suffering of the people by providing medical services. The country was literally torn apart by the war between the Soviet Union who invaded Afghanistan and the Afghan Resistance supported by America and other Western Countries. You know one part of this story. One Arab player rose through the ranks helping Afghanistan freeing itself from the occupant. His name: Osama Bin Laden who was thought to be an ally in this war. He made donations to the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan (the largest held a staggering 4 million refugees). This project was facilitated by the CIA, The Pakistani secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence.
Once the Soviets retreated there was no peace but extremists took over and created even more war and conflict amongst the people. The American people were presented with a steep price ticket for getting involved on September 11, 2003.
This is the backdrop of the story. A mess that I cannot really understand enough because I don’t know enough about it, really. So I begin reading. The book is illustrated much like a comic book and it is Didier’s photographs that fill in the story. I find myself reading and looking at the image thinking, this is not just a story, this happened. And I read, and read and read.
“You know, for example, if you have an aperture of 11 with a shutter speed of 1/60th, and you decide to close the diaphragm down to 5-6 for a shallower depth of field, you’ll automatically have to increase shutter speed by two stops”. “Hm”. “That becomes second nature. But of course being able to produce a technically good picture doesn’t mean you’ll make great pictures. For great pictures you really have to tear your eyes out. I want to pour all my energy into improving my photography. I want to take good pictures.” “And what is a good picture?” “I don’t know.”
It is a story so well told that it draws you in- completely. A documentary as good as as it gets. Photojournalism as it is intended to be – an eye witness account shown to us image by image. Told by a naive and at first innocent photographer who is in way over his head but somehow manages. Illustrated with humor and pictures so simplistic and gripping. Each a testament to how incredibly lucky we are to live in peace and in a democratic environment. A journey serving as a dark reminder that even idealistic and well meaning people can die or get very ill.
Didier suffered from chronic furunculosis and lost fourteen teeth after the mission. A consequence of malnutrition, exhaustion and the incredible stress. Unfortunately Didier saw only modest success in his lifetime, he passed away in January 2007 of heart failure at only 49. “The Photographer” has sold over 250,000 copies (a number unheard of for a photography book) in France alone. It has won several awards since.
The book says about Didier Lefèvre “His work and character, both of which were outstanding, remain mostly to be discovered.”
What Emmanuel Guibert has done with the book is for lack of a better word amazing. Was it not for his graphics and the way he has put it together – we wouldn’t be able to read it. Emmanuel makes us watch and observe the story. His illustrations give us a much needed rest during the heartbreak we see. Doubtful that it could have been told in a more suitable way. This holds true especially for our society that doesn’t like to be confronted with the realities of what war really looks like for those who are in it.
To sum it up, it is not an easy book. It will make you think, ponder and perhaps you may get angry on why war is still tolerated. But you read it anyway and you think about it some more.
The beauty is, this is what Didier Lefèvre had set out to do. To tell a story as a photojournalist and he has done it masterfully and with heart. I am with him through the journey, I know when he is happy that he can capture through the lens of the camera what he can’t bare to watch with his eyes open.
And I cry when he cries.
To purchase the book please click here;
To see the exhibit please click here:
To learn about Doctors Without Borders click here:
Reviewed by Beate Chelette