Book Review: The Photographer

The-Photographer-Guibert

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.

Lefèvre often uses groups of negatives in a sequence to establish a scene and characters.

Lefèvre often uses groups of negatives in a sequence to establish a scene and characters.

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.

Untitled-1

Finally, Lefèvre’s frank, succinct narration ties together and fills any gaps left by the sequential art. 007He 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.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Photographer-War-torn-Afghanistan-Doctors/dp/1596433752/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1377755728&sr=8-1&keywords=the+photographer

Book Review: 25 Lessons I’ve Learned about (Photography) Life by Lorenzo DomÍnguez

memoir_23784A big part of building a personal blog is having a platform to improve my writing abilities. With that in mind, I had high hopes for 25 Lessons I’ve Learned about (Photography) Life by Lorenzo DomÍnguez as a tool to learn about writing on my favorite subject as I tossed it into my Amazon cart. Upon completing the book, I can safely say that the book did teach me a fair amount about writing on photography. Unfortunately, almost every lesson was an example of what not to do.

I got a nagging feeling that 25 Lessons wasn’t clicking for me early on, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until somewhere around the three-quarter mark. You know those tacky sunset-on-a-beach photos with the faux-inspirational print you see in psychologists’ offices, Christian book stores, and on the Facebook pages of your more optimistic friends? Well, 25 Lessons is essentially those posters in book form. Almost every line feels like it’s begging to become a featured blurb, or a quote on one of the aforementioned posters. Add that to DomÍnguez’s self admitted, perpetual optimism, and you have something that will make anyone without a shelf of Precious Moments figurines motion sick from continual eye-rolling.

What’s worse is that said ocular strain feels like it goes on far longer than it needs to. Even at 123 pages, the book feels padded.  The author repeats himself multiple times over different chapters to the point that about half the lessons just seem like tweaks on previous ones. Entire paragraphs are tangential at best, and nothing feels lost by simply skipping over many of them.  DomÍnguez even peppered the book with various quotes from other figures. Lines from the likes of Gandhi and Jonathan Swift that were tossed in among the text only remind us that others have said everything that DomÍnguez is saying, but better.  

                But, this is a book about photography, so there’s probably a strong visual presence that makes up for the shortcomings of the text, right? Well, no. For being a photographer, DomÍnguez doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of “show, don’t tell.” He goes to no small effort to explain the stories behind the photos he takes and even describe the photos themselves; he never includes those photos with the text to act as an illustration to the narrative. While there are photos, they’re just stuck at the end of chapters to create a break between the various lessons. Even those are relatively small, and placed sideways so that the reader must strain his neck and squint his eyes to make them out.

The thing is, I feel like all of the above sins could be forgiven if any of the advice to be found in 25 Lessons was something truly unique, original, or profound. I understand that DomÍnguez went through a great journey of personal discovery and wanted to share the lessons he learned by sharing the stories of how he learned them.  While that should work in theory, I find it doesn’t work very well in execution. See, he learned from those experiences because he was there to actually experience them. Trying to relay the entirety of the impact of the moment of epiphany along with all that preceded it means that the vast majority of the emotional weight will be lost. This can make people think, but I feel like it can’t replicate the impact of an experience that creates the kind of lesson that one carries for the remainder of his life.

At first, I thought my dislike of this book came from the fact that I am less of an artistic photographer than a photojournalist. As a rule, we journalism types tend to be more cynical and callous than our counterparts who view photography as a strictly artistic venture. While this book would most likely go over better with the illustration crowd, it’s still too poorly executed for me to recommend even to them. Give this one a pass.

Was I too harsh on 25 Lessons? Let me know what you think on the comments below. Also, share a book that you’ve wanted to break down.

 

 

 

 

 

Documentary Review: Dear Zachary

DearZachary

Don’t watch this film. Seriously, you’ll thank me. Oh, it’s not that it makes the mistakes of the previous films I’ve reviewed. The character are all fleshed out and identifiable, the production and editing are solid, and the narrative is phenomenal. “But Sam,” I hear you say. “These all sound like traits of a good film!” And, you would be absolutely right; Dear Zachary is an amazing movie. But you still shouldn’t watch it.

Though, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, is exactly what it sounds like. Film maker Kurt Kuenne’s closest friend, Andrew Bagby had passed on, leaving an infant son, Zachery, behind. The film began life as a collection of interviews of Andrew’s friends and family, mixed with old home video footage shot by Kuenne. Of course, films like this never receive much attention unless there is some form of twist, and it is a big one. Shirley Turner, little Zachery’s mother, is revealed to be the one who killed Bagby. Following this early reveal, the bulk of the film follows Bagby’s parents, David and Kathleen, fighting to gain custody of Zachary from their son’s killer. This culminates in a climax that I would not dare spoil.

Every note comes together in a beautiful, yet heartbreaking sonata that shows just how powerful the documentary can be. The story is something nobody could have come up with in fiction. Rewatching it after seeing all of the other documentaries for this class, I can truly appreciate how well done it is. It succeeds in creator insertion where Moore’s Bowling for Columbine fails in that the creator is part of the story, but does not ever try to become the focus of the narrative. Unilke A Man Named Pearl, no part of the story seems wasted or superfluous. Finally, it delivers the raw emotion more than anything else on this list. I have seen Dear Zachery twice, and I have cried twice.

So, now you see. Dear Zachery is a brilliant film, that for your own sake, you should avoid.

Bowling for Columbine Review

Image

 

Every documentary we have seen thus far has essentially been the story of the subject challenging something. In The Cove it  was dolphin slaughter; Gas Hole, the oil industry; The Human Experience, perceptions of our fellow humans. Bowling for  Columbine is no different, with Michael Moore taking on what feels like the entirety of conservative America at times. Unfortunately, Moore seems not only to have bitten off more than he can chew, but ineffectually gnawing on it like a cranky schnauzer.

More than anything, Moore just comes off as bitter and immature. It’s very clear that he has an agenda, and he has no problem showing it. And, this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, so long as the presentation and subject matter is handled with a feeling of maturity and respect.

Moore abandons all of that if favor of cheap gimmicks, jabs at interview subjects added when they are not around to defend themselves, and an overall attempt to vilify conservative culture in general. It is a recurring theme in his work for him to chase down those he wants to interview, shove a microphone in his/her face, and then act like a hurt, innocent victim when he is ignored.

All of Moore’s antics radically undercut his message, making me actually feel a tad ashamed when I agreed with any of his stances. Overall, what good ideas that the documentary does present are buried under the sheer breadth of what Moore tries to fight, and the petty behavior on screen. This should really only be watched to get a feel for how not to approach a documentary.