The idea behind The Photographer is a basic one: make a comic using photographs instead of hand-drawn illustrations. Sounds straightforward until you realize that, while photos are fantastic at delivering an entire story in a single frame or even a small sequence, they don’t hold upwhen used in comic form. All the dialogue boxes, speech bubbles, and sound and motion effects just don’t gel together in a way that feels coherent for the reader (I tried it earlier on this site). Fortunately, an incredibly talented group of Frenchmen has managed to find a way to make it all work.
In The Photographer, writer Didier Lefèvre uses a combination of text, photographs, and hand-drawn illustrations to tell the story of his experiences documenting a group from Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan. The book opens with a brief introduction from Lefèvre, followed by story that flows through his preparations, sneaking into Afghanistan, his trials, and his grueling trip home.
After a brief introduction and glimpse of the whirlwind of preparation, the reader is thrust into the mountains outside Peshawar as Lefèvre and company sneak past Russian helicopters and over the border into Afghanistan. Once across the border, the journey then begins the slow, grueling trek across the mountains into a small Afghan village where the doctors spend weeks treating the sick and injured. However, Lefèvre begins to feel restless and stagnant, so he decides to strike out for home on his own ahead of his comrades. What follows is a nightmarish expedition of injury, disease, extortion from local bandits and officials, and a fight against nature that Lefèvre struggles through to return to France.
The Photographer’s greatest strength is the way the photographs, illustrations, and narration all work together to tell a more completenarrative than any one of them could individually. The best way to think of it is to compare it to the construction of a play. Lefèvre’s photographs set the stage itself. Landscapes of vast mountains, valleys, villages, and desert become breathtaking backdrops which he then populates with intimate, piercing portraits of those around him. Through a skillful combination of gorgeous single shots and compelling sequences, the audience can feel a living, breathing world. Lefèvre essentially takes the literary mantra of “show, don’t tell” to its most extreme conclusion and in doing so pulls readers more completely into his journey.
With the stage’s environment and characters strongly established, the images created by illustrator Emmanuel Guibert and colorist Frederic Lemercier breathe life into the actual narrative. The illustrations move the story by showing Lefèvre himself, the dialogue between characters, and any other details and interactions that Lefèvre could not have photographed.
Finally, Lefèvre’s frank, succinct narration ties together and fills any gaps left by the sequential art. He never seems to try to dress up or unnecessarily bolster the written text, He doesn’t need to. Every line feels raw and personal, and it is through the narration that the audience learns most of the small details that make the story feel all the more real.
It is The Photographer’s focus on smaller details of the journey that makes it so engaging. Including smaller bits of minutia like inconsequential but personal conversations, a stubborn pack animal, doctors arm wrestling with the Afghan guides, seeing every bit of Lefèvre’s damaged photo equipment, and even the nuances of going to the restroom while wearing a galabiyya (traditional Afghan clothing for men) help to give the reader a much truer sense of the overall experience.
Even when trying to look for faults with The Photographer, I have been unable to find anything wrong with it. The only possible sticking point might be that the pacing is very much a slow burn until the last quarter of book. That being said, odds are you aren’t going to be picking up a book about a photographer documenting a group from Doctors Without Borders for the action to begin with, so I can’t see that as a true issue for most readers.
Simply put, The Photographer is an amazing book whose diverse use of different media makes it a unique, engaging, and memorable story that I highly recommend. Just follow the Amazon link below to order your own copy.