Monday, May 25, 2009

The Photographer

The Photographer is the new (well new here in the U.S.) graphic novel by Emmanuel Guibert, chronicling photographer Didier Lefevre's stay with Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan. Guibert's previous graphic novel, Alan's War, was my pick for best graphic novel of 2008, so when I'd read that his next book was about Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit group of medicinal practitioners who provide their services to those in impoverished countries, I had been eagerly awaiting its arrival. In addition to writing and drawing The Photographer (full color, 270 pages for only $29.95), Guibert uses actual photographs taken by Didier Lefevre in Afghanistan of the country, it's people, and of the work that Doctors Without Borders did there.
Guibert was a friend of photographer Didier Lefevre and when Lefevre told him of his time in Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, Guibert thought his story would be a great one to share. Reading The Photographer just reinforced to me what an amazing group of people Doctors Without Borders are, because Afghanistan is a very harsh country, a very poor country, and a country in which many of its people were in dire need of medicinal attention even before the war there post 9-11, 2001 (The Photographer takes place during Lefevre's visit there in 1986). Doctors Without Borders, in countries such as Afghanistan, work in environments in which there is nothing in the way of the surgical technologies that we take for granted in our hospitals and they often have to improvise. Just getting from village to village with Afghanistan's rough, mountainous terrains is risky in itself (with the added danger of numerous land mines), so it takes people of extraordinary character to volunteer their services to Doctors Without Borders.

Although Lefevre and many of those within Doctors Without Borders repeatedly say how beautiful Afghanistan is and return there, having read The Photographer just reinforces to me that this isn't a country I'd put on my list of places to visit. Afghanistan truly seems to be like another world and not in a romantic sense, its people have what seems to me a very hard existence, most of them have no educational opportunities, and their devotion to their religion dominates just about every aspect of their lives. Most Afghans have little to no concept of people different from them, although certainly this is changing with the presence of troops from countries around the world post 2001.

I don't think that the people of Afghanistan should aspire to have the technological or material means that other countries have, but until they understand how that makes those countries different and we (those countries with technological and vast material means) understand countries without, the tensions between our countries is going to continue. But to me, the bigger cultural countries divide exists in terms of religious fervor - while many in the U.S. claim to be religious, the extent to which they practice said religion doesn't permeate their everyday existence as it does for most people in Afghanistan. This is just an example of cultural relativism and I'm sure that if I grew up in Afghanistan with little to zero education (amongst others with similar backgrounds) and lived in a culture that never questioned their religion, I would most probably think that people who lived in the "free world and or capitalist countries" were living lives that was going to doom them to damnation (that is if I ever even became aware of other different countries and its people).

I want to stress again that Lefevre (the photographer of whom this book is about and Doctors Without Borders) repeatedly say what a generous people the Afghans can be and what a beautiful country Afghanistan is, I was largely left with the impression that Afghanistan is a hostile place (mostly due to the terrain of the country) and that I would be unable to live there. I, being a person born in a "free country" (and living most of my life thus far in another "free country" the U.S.A.), really don't have a frame of reference for those that live in countries like Afghanistan, so when I read in The Photographer about how horses / mules, who have incredibly difficult lives as they are largely just the means that the people there use to navigate the terrain, are just left alongside "roads" to slowly die when they are no longer of use, my animal rights sensibilities are just sickened, but then I realize that I have the luxury of thinking of about animal rights when people in countries like Afghanistan have daily trials and tribulations that I couldn't even imagine (so sadly animal rights are very low on their lists of concerns and actually their religion probably doesn't much recognize animals beyond their servitude qualities).

After reading The Photographer, I am even more in awe of Doctors Without Borders, who find it within themselves to transcend the cultural differences that exist with the people they help and who manage to do this in desperate, horrific conditions (that often mirror the people they're helping) and cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert's amazing biographical communication prowess.