Beyond the headlines, behind the countless stories of war in Afghanistan, and what it means to live there now, lie millions of stories. Human stories, personal histories, and day-to-day activities that can be downright banal if not for the war, religion, and politics that constantly affect everything and everyone living there. There is always the question of how we got here, how Afghanistan reached this point in its history, and what we in North America don’t understand about the country.
The Photographer does not exactly sum up everything, but that’s not its job. Its role is a deceptively simple one. It’s “merely” the story of a photographer, Didier Lefèvre, hired to document the work of several physicians working for Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan in July 1986. To say it’s informative is an understatement.
What Lefèvre experienced—beginning with adjusting to the heat, followed by learning to acclimate socially in this conservative country—is epic in scale, and the book’s heft gives proper exposure to Lefèvre’s life. The Photographer was originally published in Lefèvre’s native France, where it’s sold 250,000 copies. Now a worldwide phenomenon, its U.S. release is an event, as it should be. The story deserves it. Lefèvre deserves it.
It’s hard to describe what Lefèvre went through in a short synopsis. He returned with 4,000 photos, substantially fewer teeth and less body weight, and a severe case of exhaustion. In the book, he goes through a cute “initiation” from the doctors, earns their trust and respect, and then becomes part of this culture and society that is at once so fascinating and so foreign to him.
The thousands of photos Lefèvre took remained unpublished for the most part for decades after his return. It was his stories of his time there that got the most airing, but mostly only for his friends. One of those friends, Emmanuel Guibert (Alan’s War), became the conduit for creating The Photographer, and the book is richer for it. Guibert has a knack for lending his subtle pencils to true life stories, and the way his artwork seamlessly blends in with Lefèvre’s photographs is brilliant. That’s in large part due to the stellar work of designer Frédéric Lemercier.
An afterword to The Photographer gives an update on the key players of the story, which is a thankfully thorough explanation for readers, who will inevitably be left craving more. Lefèvre was indeed someone whose eyes opened up new insights for others. That he shared them in this remarkable book is a wonderful statement about his life and a powerful way to remember someone who did more than his part to help us understand the world a little bit better.
Reviewed by John Hogan on May 12, 2009
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders