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Urbanautica

DIDIER LEFÈVRE

BY MARTIN PETERSEN

It’s not that I imagine that our bookshelves have the contents of a library. It is primarily novels, half a rack of comic books, a shelf containing poetry collections and another shelf containing my photo books, and so on until you reach the shelf, where you can find the books that do not fit into the above categories. It was on this shelf that I recently found “The Photographer”. Bought a couple of years ago and put into the unspecified section of the rack system because it was too large to be squeezed in alongside the other comics or photo books.

In short, “The Photographer” is half cartoon / half photo book. The drawings tell the story and the photographs documents how things really were. You follow the French photographer Didier Lefèvre on a mission with a team from Doctors Without Borders, and how they discreetly make their way from Pakistan into the war-torn Afghanistan via the same routes as the arms smugglers, in a constant fear of being discovered by the Russians, and you follow Didier Lefèvre on his way back to Pakistan, where the biggest problem no longer is the Russians, but rather his Afghan guides.

Halfway through the book it struck me that although “The Photographer” was published during the period 2003-07 (originally three volumes), and the story takes place in 1986, it gave me the feeling that I was reading a story that could just as easily have taken place in 2012. I do not think everyday life has changed much for the tribes in the region, and without knowing it; I am willing to argue that the arms smugglers are still there, it’s just the enemy that has changed. Reading the story from this context adds multiple layers to the book. 

The strength of Didier Lefèvre’s images is that he comes close, very close. There are unbearable images of dying children; there are photos from surgeries performed outdoors under primitive conditions, and at night, with the patient lit only by a headlamp. There are landscapes of unparalleled beauty, there are portraits of tribal leaders, locals and guides, and there are excerpts of everyday life that are so incomprehensible distant from the life I live. 

The trip was hard on Didier Lefèvre, he suffered subsequent chronic abscesses and lost 14 teeth. When you read about his hardships during the months he was away, it is almost scary to know that despite all the work and suffering he put into the trip, everything that he was exposed to and the 4,000 photos he took along the way, it ended up with a paltry 6 pictures being published in Libération.

If you try searching for Didier Lefevre’s work, you will mainly find photos from his time associated with Doctors Without Borders. He began working for the organization in 1984, and was associated with them until his untimely death. His work for Doctors Without Borders led him to such diverse destinations as The Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Malawi, Niger, and Afghanistan, the list of countries he visited on other tasks is just as long.

Didier Lefevre kept returning to Afghanistan for twenty years, from 1986, where ” The Photographer” unfolds, to 2006, the year before he died just 49 years old. “When Doctors Without Borders asked me to go to Afghanistan in 1986, I didn’t hesitate. In hindsight, that journey now seems to have been one of initiation. Since then, I have returned to that country many times..”. What caught him by Afghanistan, I’ll probably never get to know the answer to.

Didier Lefèvre is not a well-documented photographer, and not a big name in the history of photography. He has contributed to some long out-of-print books, and a single book in his own name was also published. But whatever the name of the photographer is, good photographs, working for a good cause and a good story are always relevant. I encourage people to invest in “The Photographer” and dwell on Didier’s documentation of his journey back and forth across the border, and to stop and think of how contemporary it feels here 26 years later. Subsequently, you can look online for the bits of his other work, which can be found on the net, and finally donate some money to Doctors Without Borders. You will feel like it after reading “The Photographer”.

© Martin Petersen | Didier Lefèvre | The Photographer
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