The Photographer: Seeing Afganistan from an Entirely Different Perspective

In 1986, photographer Didier Lefevre was hired to accompany a mission of Medecins Sans Frontieres (also known as Doctors Without Borders) into Afghanistan, in order to document the trip. Several decades later, French comics creator Emmanuel Guibert took Lefevre's memories, as well as his photographs, and turned it into a fascinating graphic memoir, mixing together his own drawings and Lefevre's powerful photos to capture Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion.

The comic is split into three parts, which cover roughly the trip to the village where the MSF staff was planning on setting up shop, the experiences in that village once they get there, and Didier's perilous trip back alone. Along the way Didier learns a lot about the culture and society of the mujaheddin who accompany the MSF mission. and who they end up treating for injuries incurred fighting the Soviets. He also develops a healthy respect for the MSF staff, who put themselves directly in danger of arrest (by the Pakistanis for sneaking into Afghanistan or the Soviets for being in Afghanistan) if not worse in order to save lives.

I particularly found the third section, where Didier decides to go back on his own (in order to avoid a detour the MSF mission was wanting to take), enthralling thanks to the suspense over how he will survive. Abandoned by the few guides he was given (who were incompetant anyways), beset by boils and bad diet, and making his way through an area where the only Persian he speaks comes out of a few half-remembered phrases and a well-thumbed dictionary, I was biting my nails to see how he would escape.

In the US, we've gotten a very set view of Afghanistan, thanks to our decade-long war there. I would hope this book would undermine some of the assumptions of our stereotypes, thanks to Lefevre and Guibert's humanizing of the people Didier encounters, combined with the photos of Lefevre's voyage that make the landscape and people of Eastern Afghanistan all the more real.

My one disappointment is that there is little discussion of the more recent conflicts in Afghanistan, even in the section at the back which reveals what all the people Didier met on his trip have been doing. I would have loved to hear the opinions of the MSF staff on what the more current war has done to Afghanistan, but I suppose it can only report what people gave Guibert when he wrote the profiles.

All in all, however, this book is fantastic. Definitely check it out if you want a different depiction of Afghanistan than we've been getting recently, or if you want to learn more about MSF.

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