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Home > Bart Beaty's Conversational Euro-Comics

Le Photographe Vol. 3, Emmanuel Guibert
posted December 15, 2006
 

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Sorry for the delay.

Last time out, I said I'd be right back with a review of the third and final volume of (Dupuis), Emmanuel Guibert's comic about Afghanistan. I thought that it would be quick. But reading the third volume, which is magnificent, sent me back to re-read the other two. And then I had to watch the documentary that accompanies the third volume (how many comics have accompanying documentaries? I'm thinking very few). And then I pretty much read all three volumes again. Before I knew it a couple of weeks had passed as I had gotten lost in this work.

First things first. I am an admitted Guibert junkie. I'll buy anything that he puts his pen to, and I've written about his books -- La Guerre d'Alan, Olives Noires, the utterly fantastic La Fille du Professeur -- in a variety of places in the past. He's one of a very small number of artists whose work receives extensive discussion in my forthcoming book about European comics. And I can't for the life of me fathom why Sardine de l'Espace is his only work translated into English (no offense to that work for kids), when his work for adults is so much stronger.

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If someone like First Second takes a chance on Le Photographe (ideally a single-volume 260-page book) I think that it would have a good chance to become a cross-over hit in the way that Persepolis did, because it has the same qualities of timeliness, topicality, and the skilful telling of a very human story that will be of interest to a large number of readers.

The story in Le Photographe is that of Didier Lefevre, the photographer of the title. In 1986, Lefevre accompanied a Medicins sans frontieres (MSF) mission from Pakistan to north-eastern Afghanistan, to record the efforts of a team of dedicated doctors attempting to bring humanitarian relief to the Afghan people who were, at that time, resisting Soviet occupation. The three volumes are broken up so that they follow Lefevre's arrival in Pakistan and preparation for the journey; the journey into Afghanistan and the work that MSF does there; and Lefevre's journey back to Pakistan. At the end of the second volume he opts to leave the MSF mission in order to travel on his own (with guides), to cut short his trip and to experience the country in a different manner. This experience is the subject of the third volume.

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What makes Le Photographe so unique as a work of comics is the way that it combines traditional comics story-telling techniques with text and, most significantly, photos. The majority of the work is taken up by Guibert's comics panels, often narrated by captions. Guibert draws the work in his post-clear line style, reminiscent of a ragged Herge. This causes much of the work to look not unlike something out of Tintin in Tibet (indeed, one of characters even remarks as such in the first volume), but with a grey and brown washed out tone that totally predominates the books. There are almost no bright colors to be found anywhere in this epic. Guibert's drawings, which place a great deal of emphasis on the human figure, often going so far as to drop out backgrounds entirely (an effect that is admittedly more pronounced in La Guerre d'Alan), are stylized and simple. Moreover, they use simplicity to draw the reader into the world of the story.

Guibert's drawings throughout the three volumes are contrasted with Lefevre's photos, which exist as panels in the narrative. The photos never incorporate text (not even captions), and so seem to exist both within and without the narrative. Initially it can be jarring to see the photograph of a character that you've gotten used to seeing as a drawn comics character. Guibert's depictions are constantly revealed to be highly faithful to the source images, but the difference in the two types of representations -- one stylized, one realist -- is jarring nonetheless. At times, the book allows the photos to predominate, following the path of a page or two of proofs without dialogue or text of any kind. At other moments photos are blown up, taking up a disproportionate space and highlighting their dramatic importance. One of these moments is the best scene that I've read in a comic book this year.

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Having been abandoned on a mountainside by his guides, and trailing an ailing horse, Didier gets lost in a blizzard. Were it not for the fact that we know he survived to narrate this tale, one would presume a very good chance of death, and, indeed, he writes in his journal as if he were about to die. Several pages of silhouetted action highlight the photographer's desperation and then reach a climax as he pulls out his camera to take photos in defiance of what he feels is his impending death. The four photos of his horse and the valley that follow are profoundly and deeply moving, exhilarating even. Our liberation from the cramped, dark space in which Guibert has placed us, and our emergence into the dramatic, huge photos that Lefevre has taken, seem to bring the relationship of life and death together in a way that I have never seen in comics. It was at this moment that I realized Le Photographe was an absolute masterpiece.

At a time in which the Afghani people once again find themselves resisting armies set on restructuring their society, Le Photographe is an important reminder of the human toll that war has taken on that country. Lefevre's tale does not sugar-coat the subjects with which it deals. These are not didactic books, and they deal with considerable shades of grey in the re-telling. To that end, and at a time of war, Le Photographe is an important and valuable statement about the human costs of war, and the value of seeking to rise above hostility through self-sacrifice. This is one of the best comics of recent years, and it deserves as wide an audience as possible.

*****

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