Illustrator Fills In Photographer's Tale Of War The Photographer is an unusual graphic novel that combines photos and illustrations to tell the story of a photojournalist's harrowing trip to Afghanistan with a medical team from Doctors Without Borders.
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Illustrator Fills In Photographer's Tale Of War

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Illustrator Fills In Photographer's Tale Of War

Illustrator Fills In Photographer's Tale Of War

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GUY RAZ, host:

That climate change bill was hailed as a step in the right direction by foreign ministers from the world's eight largest economies, meeting in Italy this weekend. At that G8 conference, the U.S. unveiled a new strategy to fight the drug trade in Afghanistan. For years, Washington targeted poppy farmers. Now U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke says that approach failed and the new focus will be on shutting down the opium labs.

Meanwhile, a new book about Afghanistan takes us back to 1986 when that country was occupied by the Soviet Union. French photographer Didier Lefevre followed a group from Doctors Without Borders as they crossed into Afghanistan illegally to staff a field hospital.

It's been nearly a quarter century since that journey, and Lefevre died in 2007. But his photos have just been published in the English edition of an unusual book called "The Photographer." It's unusual because only part of the story is told through Lefevre's stark photography. Gaps in the narrative are filled in by cartoons - comic strip drawings.

Now before we hear how that book came together, let's start with the journey. Juliette Fournot led the Doctors Without Borders mission that Lefevre documented. I asked her how the photographer came to join her team.

Dr. JULIETTE FOURNOT (Doctors Without Borders): He entered Doctors Without Borders network with previous profession which was being a pharmacist and a biologist. And then incidentally, he started allowing himself to develop his other passion, which was photography. This transition in his career was accepted, and that's why I asked him to join our mission with the specific assignment of documenting the difficulties of providing health care in a war zone and in a remote area like Afghanistan.

RAZ: Didier Lefevre was a very young, inexperienced journalist at the time. Was he prepared for what he was about to encounter?

Dr. FOURNOT: Probably the difficulty for Didier was to have himself and his role be understood by the Afghans. For the Afghan, it was easy to understand our role as medical providers. Didier was taking pictures, but the Afghans could recognize the necessity of testimony - and the book talks about that, the witnessing - the important aspect of witnessing. But on a day-to-day basis, like when Didier insisted to come back on his own, he wasn't getting favored treatment like we, the medical teams, would probably have gotten.

RAZ: At the end of the book, we learn about the story of how Didier Lefevre decides to return to Pakistan. He's run out of film. He's been on the road for three months and he's tired of it, so he decides to go on his own without your team. What happened when he told you he was planning to do this? What was your reaction?

Dr. FOURNOT: I was upset, because I didn't like it when one of my team members, for their own private psychological needs, were putting - might be putting the mission in danger. And I always had in mind that if someone is killed, it does jeopardize the whole program. So that was a dilemma. You know, respecting Didier's soul search and trying to keep him safe so that the whole program would not be jeopardized.

RAZ: Didier Lefevre barely survived that harrowing journey out of Afghanistan. And when he returned to France, he only published six out of the 4,000 photos he had snapped. The rest of them sat in boxes for years. That is, until one fateful day when Lefevre got to talking with his friend, the graphic artist Emmanuel Guibert.

Mr. EMMANUEL GUIBERT (Graphic Artist): We were friends as you said and I spent one day, an afternoon at his house after a good lunch. And I said please choose a mission among all those you have made in the past and tell it to me. And he showed me the contact sheets, and at the end of this afternoon, I had the feeling I had seen something like a still movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And I said well, the blanks between the pictures, maybe I could try to fill them up myself with my drawings.

RAZ: The blanks in the stories that he was telling you.

Mr. GUIBERT: Yeah. And so that's what I proposed to him.

RAZ: There's a real contrast between the drawings and the photos, but it really works. For example, there's a scene when the medical team is charging into the darkness and they're portrayed in comic form until the dawn breaks. And then with that light, the page just transforms into these vivid photographs of this very brutal landscape. How did you and Didier figure out what to turn into a drawing and what to keep as a photograph?

Mr. GUIBERT: Photographs were like the spine of the story. In the beginning, I was thinking that my drawings maybe should look like the photographs to mix, to melt perfectly with them. But it was a mistake. I started to draw in black and white with scales of gray using ink, et cetera, or pencil. And then I realized I was wrong. So, I went back to this very simple style with simple features, simple lines. And I had the feeling that it worked much better.

RAZ: And I know, Guibert, Didier Lefevre died young of heart failure before he could see this book published into English, but he left thousands of other photographs from other parts of the world. Do you think it would be possible to create this type of book based on another one of his journeys without him being there to describe what happened?

Mr. GUIBERT: The answer is yes, because he wrote a lot during his missions. He always had with him little notebooks that he filled up. And with the notes that he left, I'm going to try in the future to knit together his words and his photographs to create new books about the missions that we haven't seen anything about.

RAZ: Emmanuel Guibert wrote and illustrated "The Photographer." Juliette Fournot led the Doctors Without Borders mission that Didier LeFevre photographed in 1986 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Thank you both for being with us.

Mr. GUIBERT: Thank you. Bye.

Dr. FOURNOT: Pleasure for me.

RAZ: You can see a page from "The Photographer." It's one of our recommended books of summer at

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