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)