In fifty years of reading, I don’t remember ever encountering a book quite like The Photographer. Which is why I’m choosing it as the June book club selection for the University Book Store in Seattle.
It’s an oversize, gorgeously-colored, imitation graphic memoir of twenty-nine-year-old French photographer Didier Lefevre’s three-month journey on foot in 1986 from Peshawar in Pakistan , across fifteen mountain passes over 16,000 feet high, accompanying a caravan of Doctors without Borders into northern Afghanistan, traveling illegally by night to avoid the invading Soviet armies.
Lefevre died in 2007, just as his photos were finally achieving international prominence. His lost journals have been recreated from notes, photos, and an expenditure diary. Interspersed throughout The Photographer are Lefevre’s actual black-and-white photos, some still in long proof strips. Together with the text and the brightly-colored graphic panels, they create an utterly unique reading experience.
Along with the exhausted, grumpy young photographer, the reader meets the leader of the young doctors, Juliette, who dresses like a man and calmly overturns the gender expectations of everyone they encounter on the road, winning over the Afghans with her knowledge of the language and customs.
But after a month in Peshawar preparing for the journey, a month crossing arduous mountain passes, and a month treating war wounded in the tiny impromptu hospital in Zaragandara, the young photographer finds himself running out of film. When Juliette announces the doctors will be taking the long route home, Lefevre decides he can’t wait. Boldly, foolishly, he sets out on his own.
Every page of this lavishly-produced book is a visual adventure, as close as paper and ink, words, drawings, color and photography can come to bringing you the living, real-world adventure of a young photographer risking his life with one of the bravest, most beloved humanitarian organizations in the world.
The incredible hardships and brutality of a life without medicine is balanced by the life-saving dedication of the doctors trying to help. The resulting book is an uplifting testament to Lefevre’s talent and courage in heroically pursuing his art, documenting the doctors’ victories at the cost of his own diminishing health.