Documenting Afghanistan: Guibert on The Photographer

Emmanuel Guibert, The Photographer

The Photographer, cover

Le Photographe was an extremely popular and revolutionary comic series when it was published in Europe.

The three-volume series marked a powerful collaboration between cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert (Alan’s War) and photojournalist Didier Lefèvre. Lefèvre, a renowned photojournalist who passed away two years ago, undertook several trips to Afghanistan in the company of MSF, Doctors Without Borders during the 1980s. Le Photographe, now translated to English and released as a single edition from First Second Books, tells of Lefèvre’s 1986 excursion. The Photographer: Into war-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders is the English-language version of Lefèvre and Guibert’s European series. With translation assistance provided by the folks at First Second, we asked Emmanuel Guibert about The Photographer, working with Didier Lefèvre and the three-pointed mission of this project. Newsarama: Emmanuel, how did you meet Didier and when did you decide to collaborate with him on The Photographer: Into war-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders?

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Emmanuel Guibert: Didier and I knew each other since I was 14 years old and he, 21. We lived in the same building in Paris. Much later, in ‘99, he invited me to share a meal at his house (we weren’t neighbors anymore), and we spent a whole afternoon looking at contact sheets and printed pictures from the first mission he had made in Afghanistan, in ’86. I’ve been so impressed and passionate by what I discovered that I immediately proposed him to conceive a book together, which would include his photographs. NRAMA: How much of the script is Didier’s words and how much is yours? EG: Difficult to say. In Alan’s War, I’ve tried to be radically faithful to everything Alan told me, and almost every single word is his. In The Photographer, I had to reconstitute a diary, a day-by-day documentary of a story which had taken place 18 years before. So, under Didier’s control, I really tried to write as if I were in his shoes, living the adventure myself, but myself as Didier. I don’t know if I make myself clear. It’s rather natural for me to do, but not that easy to explain. That’s what I like about those stories made with friends: try to experiment so, if two persons really listen to each other, mutual comprehension turns polyphony into some sort of single melody.
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NRAMA: How did you and Didier approach the balance of photography and artwork? How did the physical look at the book evolve as you both worked together on it? EG: Didier had never done a book at the time and made me the most beautiful and vital gift one friend can do to one another: he trusted me. He gave me all his contact sheets and left me the freedom to choose whatever I wanted. I don’t know if a photographer ever did that before. Their job is as much to shoot as to choose. To completely entrust the choice with someone else is a heavy decision. It’s like a writer giving you the first draft of a novel and saying: publish anything you want. That never happens, I guess, but that’s what happened to us. It gave me a high sense of responsibility. So, I conceived the whole book alone, reading him what I wrote and showing him my choice of pictures very often, always concentrated upon his comments and eager to get as close as possible to what he had lived.

NRAMA: It’s an interesting piece of comic book journalism, the sort of thing you rarely see outside of Joe Sacco’s work. How important is it that this book adds nuances and faces to the problems in Afghanistan?

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EG: It’s a book about three unknown worlds: first, the one of photojournalists. We see every day the result of their job, but seldom know who they are and how they work. Secondly, the one of doctors working for NGOs (non-governmental organizations). We see their silhouettes on the fundraising bulletins we receive in our mail boxes, but generally don’t know anything about them personally, if one of them isn’t a friend or a member of our family. Thirdly, the one of people from Nuristan and Badakhshan areas of Afghanistan. I learned a great deal of things about these three worlds, listening to Didier, the doctors and the few Afghans I met. I publish this sort of book when I’m interested in something I’m learning and want to deepen the subject and share it. I seldom think of the consequences of my work, how it may or may not change the opinions about an issue or another. This is too immaterial and uncertain. I think about giving a form to an interesting story.

NRAMA: There are some beautiful stories about the selflessness of the Afghani people in the villages that Didier and the doctors stayed in. And there are stories about Didier being taken advantage of, extorted. Do you think or hope that these disparate occurrences add to the understanding of Afghanistan?

EG: Didier always tried to be as sincere and lucid as possible. He was not a worshipper nor a cynic. He was a photographer trying to catch vivid and meaningful moments of life. He had the kind of look and reflection that is a perfect food for readers’ thoughts: a huge curiosity, no preconceived ideas, no prepared answers, lots of questions and a great sense of humor. There are ethnological, historical and all sorts of pedagogical notations in the book, but all of them delivered by a candid and neophyte observer.

NRAMA: Some of the photos are extremely graphic, an amputation, a boy whose face is nearly torn off by shrapnel, etc. Did it bother you to depict other people’s real suffering in such direct terms? Or that some readers might find the book too graphic, perhaps distasteful?

EG: Didier and I agreed on the fact that, in a western world more or less sheltered from war, where seven extra-lives are generously provided to any war videogames players, where lightly wounded heroes of action movies keep on running, killing and making love for hours, some images of the truth, of the everyday life of a country submitted to war, were to be shown. That’s also the reason why a 40mn movie made by Juliette Fournot was included in the French edition. A few pages of the book are inevitably tough, but the book isn’t desperate, nor driving to despair. It’s a book about persons reacting bravely and wisely against the effects of war.

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NRAMA: There’s a scene with Didier cries after seeing a young girl who’d been paralyzed by a piece of shrapnel no bigger than a grain of rice that had pierced her spine. It’s absolutely heart-breaking. How do you approach the brutal humanity of scenes like that to retain the randomness of the devastation?

EG: I just tried to remain as close as possible to Didier: we enter the room with him, discover the situation and share his thoughts. No speeches, no violins, no spilt blood. Drama is often something which hasn’t the appearance of a drama: just a child lying on a bed, silent and still, but who won’t get up anymore.

NRAMA: Directly after leaving the teen girl, Didier finds a doctor videotaping a mother mourning her son’s death, and the doctor tells him that the mother wanted it recorded so that people will see the cost of the war. How much did that scene encourage you and Didier that this book was an important document?

EG: At the time (1986), Didier certainly believed in the role and the efficiency of photographs as a testimony against war. As he grew older, the quick evolution of his job, of the medias, and of his own psychology made him more doubtful about that. I wouldn’t describe my book as an “important document,” but I know that I absolutely never had any doubt on the fact that I had to conceive it, devoting to it all the time and concentration it would require.

NRAMA: Okay, Emmanuel, on less tragic fronts, the sadness and brutality is often offset by really unexpected sources of humor, such as Didier’s efforts to be left alone long enough to go the bathroom, or the Afghani who was shot in the ass. Were those lighter moments things you looked to add to the narrative, or was it simply a case of trying to reflect the full experience of Didier’s experience?

EG: The second answer. I didn’t think about this work in dramatic terms, I drove more the story as a testimony, as a documentary than as a narrative. When the members of the mission, nowadays, gather and talk about the past, they always remember all the good laughs they had. This dimension had to be in the book. And Didier was, oh boy! such a humorous man. We laughed all the time.

NRAMA: Didier traveled with MSF, Doctors Without Borders. Beyond being a gripping story unto itself, do you feel that The Photographer works to shine a light on the valuable, humanitarian work being done by similar organizations throughout the world?

EG: That was one of our admitted goals since the beginning, to pay a tribute to this excellent team of doctors and nurses. Obviously, the human sample they represent has existed, exists and will exist in the future wherever suffering persons need help, and the work of organizations like MSF is something irreplaceable. What we precisely wanted was to give back a face, a voice, a first name and a behavior to doctors who are generally faceless, nameless and voiceless for the public. The work Juliette, Robert, Régis, Sylvie, John, Évelyne, Ronald, Odile, Michel have done deserves respect and gratitude. This book is for them.

The Photographer: Into war-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders arrives in stores May from First Second.

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