The Photographer Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders

Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier

First Second



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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Nominated for the Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Award for Best Reality-Based Work
Nominated for the Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Award for Best New Graphic Album
Nominated for the Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Award for Best U.S. Edition of International Material
A Texas Library Association Young Adult Round Table Recommended Graphic Novel

At the end of July 1986, Didier Lefèvre left Paris for Afghanistan. He barely returned to tell the tale. It was his first major assignment as a photojournalist, documenting a Doctors Without Borders mission. Camera in hand, the traveled with a band of doctors and nurses into the heart of Northern Afghanistan, where the war between the Soviet Union and the Afghan Mujahideen was raging.

The mission affected Lefèvre as profoundly as the war affected contemporary history. His photographs, paired with the art of Emmanuel Guibert, tell the story of an arduous journey undertaken by men and women intent on mending what others destroyed.


Praise for The Photographer

"All narratives of war told through the lens of the combatants carry with them the seduction of violence. But once you cross to the other side, to stand in fear with the helpless and the weak, you confront the moral depravity of industrial slaughter and the scourge that is war itself. Few books achieve this clarity. The Photographer is one. A strange book, part photojournalism and part graphic memoir . . . The book shows the damage done to bodies and souls by shells, bullets, and iron fragments, and the frantic struggle to bend the broken . . . The small sequential frames of the contact sheets merge seamlessly into the panels of artwork. The book, at 167 pages, is long. But its length is an asset, allowing the story to build in power and momentum as it recounts the arduous trip into mountain villages, the confrontations with the devastation of war, the struggle to save lives and Lefevre's foolish and nearly fatal attempt to return to Pakistan ahead of the team . . . Lefevre (who died of heart failure in 2007) tells his story with a mixture of beguiling innocence and sensitivity. He retreats in tears to a secluded corner after seeing a wounded 10-year-old girl who will never walk again and will die of septic shock six months later. Photographs of the child are juxtaposed with Guibert's drawing of Lefevre, silhouetted and hunched over in grief . . . The book has the feel of a film, attesting to the skill of Guibert and Frederic Lemercier, the graphic designer. But there is nothing romantic about Afghanistan or the Afgans . . . The disparity between what we are told or what we believe about the war and the war itself is so vast that those who come back, like Lefevre, are often rendered speechless . . . The power of The Photographer is that it bridges this silence. There is no fighting in this book. No great warriors are exalted. The story is about those who live on the fringes of war and care for its human detritus. By the end of the book the image or picture of a weapon is distasteful. And if you can achieve this, you have gone a long way to imparting the truth about warfare."—Chris Hedges, The New York Times

"There is no fighting in this book. No great warriors are exalted. The story is about those who live on the fringes of war and care for its human detritus. By the end of the book the image or picture of a weapon is distasteful. And if you can achieve this, you have gone a long way to imparting the truth about warfare."—The New York Times Book Review

"Mr. Guibert adapted his graphic novel technique to incorporate the photos. Throughout the book, the photos appear side-by-side with cartoons. The dialogue is crisp and lightly sardonic. Some drawings have no background, showing the characters in empty space. ‘Photographs and drawings are like oil and water. They're always fighting,' says Mr. Guibert. ‘In the drawings, I've put only what I thought was necessary to fill in the blanks where Didier did not take photos.'"—The Wall Street Journal

"In 1986, the French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre joined a Doctors Without Borders mission to Afghanistan. It was a dangerous place even then—a country where the Cold War had turned viciously hot after the Soviet invasion of 1979. Lefèvre stayed only a few months, but beset by disease, brutal weather and extortionist police, he barely survived the experience. Still, he brought back 4,000 photographs from his trip and returned to Afghanistan seven more times before his death in 2007. Originally published in three French volumes between 2003 and 2006, The Photographer is a riveting account of Lefèvre's first journey and his experiences in Zaragandara, the Afghan town where Doctors Without Borders set up a makeshift hospital. Lefèvre's blisteringly forceful black-and-white photographs, and sometimes his contact sheets, appear on nearly every page of the book. So does Emmanuel Guibert's artwork. The cartoonist adapted his friend's memories of the trip into comics form, filling in the spaces between photos with sequences that bind the story together (and providing, understandably, almost every image we see of Lefèvre himself) and explain what was happening at less photogenic moments. Guibert develops a new visual style for each project he draws: He's also the artist behind last year's Alan's War, another superb piece of oral history in comics form. Here his approach is rough and blobby, clearly modeled on the contours of photographs but sparely rendered and showing spatters of ink. Seen next to Lefèvre's finely shaded photos, Guibert's idiomatic line work emphasizes that what we're seeing in the comics sections of The Photographer isn't quite real: It's history recollected and reconstructed. That's the formal paradox that drives the book. Lefèvre came along on the mission so that he could bring back images that would bear witness to what was happening in Afghanistan, but the photographs that he published immediately afterward couldn't say nearly as much as does the combination of his work and the approximations and memories Guibert has woven around and through it. A cartoonist has more power over narrative than a photographer, and some of Lefèvre's pictures make more sense in the context of a narrative, including a haunting shot of a horse groom who'd accidentally gotten separated from a caravan and survived to tell his story: The scene's pacing and text deepen its meaning by making evident exactly how close he'd come to doom. Much of The Photographer is fascinating on the strength of Lefèvre's experiences alone. He recounts learning to pack perfectly stuffed, watertight boxes, getting outfitted for Afghan-style clothing (and buying a woman's chadri) to avoid arousing suspicion, crossing the border into Afghanistan by a hazardous off-road path to avoid the Russian military. The middle section of the book depicts the work the doctors had come to do, but also Lefèvre's discovery of the bizarre cultural and economic realities of war zones—including the fact that the Afghan medical team could occasionally arrange for assistance from Russian doctors. Sometimes, the precision and emotional wallop of Lefèvre's photographs cut more deeply than words or drawings could: There's a nearly unbearable sequence of a wounded child having her burn cleaned, and remarkable images of a couple of Afghan soldiers laughing about their injuries and of a local chief posing with a gun and some plastic flowers. But this is as much the show of Guibert and colorist/designer Frédéric Lemercier as it is Lefèvre's, particularly in the book's final third, which concerns the photographer's disastrous solo journey back from Zaragandara as he was running out of film. The artists take over altogether for a long, dramatic sequence in which Lefèvre and his horse, abandoned by their escorts, struggle up a mountain in a blizzard as the sky darkens. For a few pages, Guibert's scratchy renderings are half-obliterated by patches of white; then all we see are spotty silhouettes against a darkening green background for a few pages, until Lefèvre abandons hope and pulls out his camera. At last, we see what he feared would be his final photographs: a series of harrowing, low-angle shots of the exhausted horse; and the largest image in the book, a two-page spread of the gorgeous, murderous Afghan landscape, its foreground a blur and its background receding into the weather."—Douglas Wolk, The Washington Post

"An inspiring book about a perpetually knotty country at the height of the Soviet-Afghan conflict, The Photographer should be mandatory reading for our Secretary of State and President."—The Boston Globe

"Whether the day's news tells of air strikes, a new general or a surge in troops, the constantly shifting uncertainty of Afghanistan's present has demanded our attention since 2001. A graphic novel offering an entry point into the country's not-too-distant past is, then, unusual, illuminating and, in this case, breathtaking. The Photographer, in Alexis Siegel's vibrant translation from the French, takes us back to 1986, when photographer Didier Lefèvre accompanied a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) expedition into Afghanistan to establish one field hospital and staff another. The photographs taken by Lefèvre on that three-month trip form the heart of the book, which possesses a gritty, often gory reality. Lefèvre photographed villagers wounded by Soviet bombs; Afghan leaders who greeted, hosted and celebrated the members of the expedition; teenage mujahedin proudly displaying their machine guns before heading into battle; and the vast beauty and bombed-out destruction of the country. It was a decade later when Lefèvre sat down with his friend and acclaimed French graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert to tell his story. Guibert based his writing and drawing of the book on their hours of interviews, a working method that he also used to create the graphic novel Alan's War, which was nominated for four Eisner awards—the top honor in comics—this year. Guibert tells Lefèvre's story with engaging clarity, using his simple and expressive line drawings not to fill in holes around Lefèvre's photographs, but to create a world in which the photographs come to life. Within the book's three-part structure, Guibert allows great freedom for digressions, reflections and what feel like spur-of-the-moment explorations. We pause, for instance, to hear a doctor's story of how he came to Afghanistan; to listen to the mission's leader, Juliette Fournot, discuss the role of women in the country; and to watch Lefèvre struggle, often comically, with Afghan customs. If this narrative looseness occasionally results in a lack of clarity, the story's breadth and poignancy are always captivating. For it is, finally, the journey of the 29-year-old photographer that elevates The Photographer beyond the status of a historical document, giving it the fullness and life of literature. Early in the book, Lefèvre tells a doctor that technical perfection is one thing, but that to take a really good picture, 'you have to search for it, search all the time, all the time.' We watch him take photographs when he's half-asleep, under physical duress, even, finally, when he believes he is dying. This portrait of the artist is rendered even more moving by Lefèvre's premature death in 2007. The Photographer's unique mix of talent and media allows the graphic novel form to flex its muscle to stunning effect. The book's clear-eyed reflection on global politics, its touching portrait of a young man struggling to mature and its arresting visual narrative come together to create a story greater than the sum of its parts—a story that is, ultimately, a sweeping declaration of human strength, compassion and creative power."—Sasha Watson, Los Angeles Times

"Melding a graphic novel, photo essay, and travelogue, The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders tells the story of photographer Didier Lefèvre's 1986 journey through Afghanistan with the international non-profit organization Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Lefèvre documented the group's harrowing covert tour from Pakistan into a nation gripped by violence in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. While a few of his 4,000-plus images were published upon his return to France, years passed before Lefèvre was approached by his friend, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, about collaborating on a book that would finally tell his remarkable story. The resulting effort, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier, is a seamless tour de force of reportage."—Kristin Butler, The Atlantic

"The Photographer is a work of stunning originality and power. It seamlessly blends personal storytelling, photography, and illustration to reveal the essential work of Doctors Without Borders. It is to Didier Lefevre's immense credit that he risked his life to bring that story to light. This amazing work gives us a window into the suffering and perseverance of the Afghan people. Above all else, it is a truly inspiring piece of work."—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

"Reading The Photographer is a simply stunning experience: you emerge from your time spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Didier and the members of MSF a better, more thoughtful person."—Nancy Pearl, NPR

"An absorbing graphic memoir . . . Lefevre's work is stunning, capturing not just the beauty of the terrain, but the stories etched onto the faces of the Afghan people."—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Events in the Middle East and Central Asia are confusing . . . That's why I am recommending The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, the best portrait of that region of the world I've ever seen. The book combines the photographs and travelogue of Didier Lefevre with the artwork of graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, the graphic design of Frederic Lemercier and even some lettering of rising star Marjane ‘Persepolis' Satrapi to produce a substantial piece of firsthand reportage. I don't believe there has ever been a book quite like The Photographer. The black-and-white photographs of the proud but war-weary Afghan people, dead or dying children, and brutally mistreated animals simply do not lie about the unimaginable amount that nation has suffered since the military coups of 1973 and 1974, the Soviet invasion of 1979 and subsequent occupation, the decade of civil war and five years of brutal Taliban rule . . . The Photographer will make you weep, laugh (yes, M*A*S*H-like gallows humor exists in all war zones) and empty your pockets to donate to the extraordinarily courageous Doctors Without Borders, which won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize."—Alan Bisbort, The Hartford Advocate

"The Photographer marries the amazing pictures of Didier Lefevre with the images and text of Emmanuel Guibert. The result is a blazingly honest, riveting memoir that stands as one of the best examples of graphic literature."—The Graphic Novel Reporter

"A staggering graphic achievement . . . The Photographer is a huge, huge success, graphically, narratively, humanistically."—Newsarama

"A compelling, one-of-a-kind reading experience . . . bringing you the real-world adventure of a young photographer risking his life with one of the bravest, most beloved humanitarian organizations in the world."—Shelf Awareness

"An expansive narrative that ranges from a discerning glimpse of a very different and variegated culture to an at times heartbreaking chronicle of the horrors of modern warfare to a desperate struggle for survival . . . an unforgettable reading experience."—ICv2

"A gripping adventure that sheds light on subjects as diverse as faith, photography, art, love, nobility, Soviet-Afghani relations, pride, masculinity, racism, and bravery. This isn't just a great photography book, it's a great novel, a great comic, a great memoir, and a great history text."—boingboing

"[Lefevre's] solo journey back to Pakistan is wrought with hardship including abandonment by his escorts, freezing temperatures, the death of his horse, illness, and being taken advantage of by both escorts and police. The chronicle of Lefevre's learning experience creates a similar effect on the reader. The graphic novel combines traditional comic art with some of the four thousand photographs Lefevre shot while in Afghanistan. The comic artwork by Guibert is primarily small square panels with realistic figures. The powerful photographs are where the real story unfolds. Many images will stay with readers as both horrifying and glorious. The Afghan children being treated for burns, bullet wounds, and shrapnel are page by page next to the beauty of the Afghan mountainous landscapes . . . It has a powerful message and images of a part of the world that should be discussed more often."—Kristen Fletcher-Spear, VOYA

"[The photographs] profit considerably by appearing in bulk and in this context; they put us near-palpably into their setting. What at first appears to be a very rough visual continuum, constantly jump-cutting from drawings to photos and back, quickly becomes suspenseful. Verbal development comes in the speech-balloons and captions of the drawings; no printing invades the photos, which become the powerful payoffs of the verbiage, at least until Lefèvre's return trip, in which, his film and his health running out, he nearly perished. He didn't take pictures then, and here Guibert rises to the challenge of maintaining the scary impetus of Lefèvre's adventure. Perhaps no medium other than this one's could convey so tangibly what it is to deliver ‘human services' in a war zone in one of the least geographically hospitable, most beautiful places on earth. A magnificent achievement."—Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)

"By truck, it would have taken a day or two, but the government army and the Russians were holding the roads. So instead it was a three-week march with pack animals over the mountains, like Marco Polo. Lefevre was photojournalist to a 1986 Doctors Without Borders team, off to staff M*A*S*H-style clinics in northeast Afghanistan. Fantasy doesn't get any stranger than trekking overland, techno-free, into a completely different culture. Lefevre's photos tell his story of the wonderful, intriguing Afghani people and their sweeping country, while Guibert's drawings tell the story of Lefevre telling his story. As a result, Afghani life seems more real than Lefevre's—and somehow that seems right. This magnificent and moving account of the human costs of war won the Canadian Bédélys Prize and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Europe. The heroism of the doctors contrasts with the daily hassles of surviving in Afghanistan and with Lefevre's loneliness, exhaustion, misunderstanding, and several rash decisions that nearly cost him his life. This has the potential to attract noncomics readers and inspire another generation of humanitarian heroes; highly recommended."—Martha Cornog, Library Journal

"This documentary graphic novel brings together starkly beautiful black and white photographs taken by Lefèvre, intimate drawings by Guibert, skillful design by Lemercier and a vibrant translation and thorough introduction by Siegel . . . Photographer Lefèvre . . . and the doctors, guides and interpreters with whom he traveled endured physical hardship and the fracas of war. In one memorable scene, the group must cross an open plateau where Russian planes fired on the previous MSF caravan. Photographs acting as panels emphasize the vast openness of the plateau, while drawings allow a glimpse of the small human gestures of the travelers. Arriving on the other side of the plateau, they reach a wooded area 'where, two years ago, they buried the man who didn't make it.' This revelation is punctuated by a large photograph of the burial mound under the trees, the mix of drawings and photographs heightening the emotional impact. Originally published in three volumes in France, the book has sold more than 250,000 copies there, and the reach of this magnificent work promises to extend far beyond the graphic novel community."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier

  • Emmanuel Guibert has written a great many graphic novels for readers young and old, from the raucous and silly Sardine in Outer Space series to the sweeping World War II biographical epic, Alan's War. Guibert lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

    Didier Lefèvre was a French photojournalist who traveled the world extensively, often reporting from the most remote and harrowing situations imaginable.

  • Emmanuel Guibert