The Photographer: gripping graphic memoir about doctors in Soviet Afghanistan, accompanied by brilliant photos

FirstSecond, one of the great literary comics presses of the modern world, has topped itself with The Photographer: Into war-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, a collaboration between photographer Didier Lefevre, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, and designer Frederic Lemercier.

The book is the memoir of Didier, a photographer who accompanied a caravan of Medecins Sans Frontiers doctors into war-torn Afghanistan to staff a clinic in the middle of the Soviet-Mujahideen war. Didier dictated the memoir to Guibert (the graphic novelist who also produced Alan's War, a stunning memoir of post-war France) before he died of a heart-attack, and Guibert and Lemercier worked to turn this into The Photographer.

Visually, The Photographer resembles nothing so much as a Tin Tin adventure, except that it is liberally sprinkled with Didier's photos and contact sheets, dropped in among the drawn panels, incorporated seamlessly into the action. Didier was a powerful, naturalistic photographer, unflinching and unpretentious, and between the finished drawings and the annotated contact sheets, you get a sense of a real artist at work.

The story is in three parts: first, there is the journey to the clinic, which begins in Pakistan where Didier meets all manner of intelligence operatives, pathological liars, adventurers and NGO workers, and then follows the MSF crew as they meet up with escort of Mujahideen guerrillas and arms-smugglers, buy their horses and donkeys, and are smuggled over the border into Afghanistan. After this, the caravan proceeds through the towns and mountains of Afghanistan, dodging Soviet helicopters, losing pack animals over sheer cliffs, and watching in horror as the discipline in their escort is brutally enforced. The caravan is led by an unlikely and charismatic woman doctor who commands the Muj's respect through sheer competence and force of will.

The second part of the story tells of Didier's time at the clinic, as all manner of war-wounded, ill and orphaned victims are processed and treated by the doctors, tales of horrific woundings and incredible bravery and sacrifice and nobility. After a while, it becomes too much for Didier, who decides -- unwisely -- to return to Pakistan alone, with just an escort of Afghani farmers with whom he does not share a common language.

Finally, Didier tells the story of his voyage home, a gruelling trip that gets worse after he is abandoned by his escort. After coming close to death, he is rescued by grifters who rob him -- but get him to safety. After more misadventures, he arrives home, finally, in Paris.

The story is very well told, a gripping adventure that sheds light on subjects as diverse as faith, photography, art, love, nobility, Soviet-Afghani relations, pride, masculinity, racism, and bravery. As I said, the photos are magnificent -- worth the cover-price alone -- but the story makes them so much better. This isn't just a great photography book, it's a great novel, a great comic, a great memoir, and a great history text.

The Photographer: Into war-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders

The Photographer sampler (PDF)


  1. Another notable graphic novel on Afghanistan is Ted Rall’s “To Afghanistan and Back.” I’ll be sure to check this one out.

  2. Regarding the front cover of this book, it makes me sad every time I see ‘Médicine Sans Frontièrs’ translated into English as ‘Doctors without Boarders’ — A name that somehow manages to strangle all of the emotion out of the original.

    Are there actually people out there who can’t work out what they do from the French name?

    Sorry. Rant over. Book looks good too.

  3. This graphic novel is great! I can safely recommend it to anyone who loves alternative comics.

    And I agree, Doctors without Borders doesn’t sound right compared to Médecins sans frontières. :P

  4. supposedly Guibert stopped by the Maddow show last week but it hasn’t aired yet. Or maybe it’s not going to air or they’re waiting for the release of the book.

  5. Fascinating. There’s an allusion to a poem by Victor Hugo in the PDF (p. 12). Above a drawing of the author walking, the caption says (in French), “I walk with rage, my spirit heavy with lead, and I don’t take any photographs”.

    Hugo wrote the poem in question after his daughter and her husband drowned in a canoe accident. It sounds at first like a love story. It’s addressed to the person without whom he can’t live. He will walk night and day, staring at the ground, not seeing the sunset or the sailboats, and when he arrives, he’ll place a bouquet of flowers on her tomb.


  6. Yes, we were at the Rachel Maddow show for a taping session with Emmanuel Guibert and Juliette Fournot, who headed the mission to Afghanistan in THE PHOTOGRAPHER. It was an amazing interview. We’re keeping fingers crossed, but still haven’t got an air date from them.

    Juliette Fournot met Ben Laden in the late 80’s. She later testified before the US congress that the US was pouring funds into this guy’s pocket and that something bad was brewing with him. She was basically patted on the head and told to “stick to medicine and leave politics to us.”

    She founded MSF/USA and is an extraordinary woman.

    –Mark Siegel, First Second Books

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