Brain Pickings

Journalism Redefined: The Photographer

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A photographer, a graphic novel, and the remarkable story behind the headlines.

As we observe the eighth anniversary of Afghanistan’s latest occupation, the world would do well to reflect on the history that brought us to this most recent impasse. That complex history deserves a fittingly complex treatment, which it gets in the genre-breaking masterwork The Photographer.

First published in 2003 in French, The Photographer was reissued in English this year. Melding a graphic novel, photo essay, and travelogue, it tells the story of photographer Didier Lefèvre’s journey through Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Lefèvre documented the group’s harrowing covert tour in 1986 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 unlike anything else in modern journalism. Through hybrid forms of history, The Photographer tells one tale of what is of course an ongoing narrative in a part of the world we usually hear about in abstract headlines. We were moved by the courage and strength of the Afghani people and the MSF doctors who risk their lives to help them under exceedingly difficult conditions, especially the team’s young, female head of mission. Although we know how this particular piece of the story works out—against long odds Lefèvre makes it back to his native France, and MSF will stay until forced to abandon its operations temporarily in 1990—that does nothing to diminish the book’s suspense.

The Photographer is a true hybrid of artistic approaches. Frames of photos run in succession to provide parallax views of a scene, and Lemercier’s coloration of the drawn panels enhances the immediacy of the experience. (The Persian script in several scenes was even penned by Persepolis artist/author Marjane Satrapi.) Moved along by interwoven panels of photography and illustration, we were completely absorbed by the action and had to be pulled away to tell you about it.

For a singular storytelling experience, let The Photographer take you on a trip through time to a place we still need to understand better.

Kirstin Butler has a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter. For more of her thoughts, check out her videoblog.

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