Travelogue(s)

Telling a story is both easier and more difficult than it has ever been before. Easier because there are any number of ways to get your story out in front of a large audience. More difficult because the number of stories out there is so great that it’s easy for yours to get lost. So whether you’re telling a tale of illegally crossing the border into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan or taking a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate your 40th birthday it has to be well told.

In 1986 the photographer Didier Lefèvre went into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan for the first time while covering a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) mission. Of the four thousand frames he exposed only six images were initially published. Thirteen years later his friend Emmanuel Guibert suggested they collaborate on publishing the story of Lefèvre’s journey and, with the help of Frédéric Lemercier, Le Photographe was published in France in three volumes between 2003 and 2006. In 2009 the English version, The Photographer, was published in one large volume by First Second.

The Photographer
The Photographer, p. 74

Being based on actual events I don’t know if you would call it a graphic novel, but the illustration drives the bulk of the narrative with Lefèvre’s photographs working as accents. It’s similar to, though not quite as powerful as, the film Waltz with Bashir and its shift from animation to photographic images. In the film’s case, the change takes place at the end to maximize impact while in The Photographer Lefèvre’s images are sprinkled throughout allowing the viewer places to rest and contemplate. I also enjoyed how, in many places, we’re given the equivalent of a contact sheet where we can see a sequence of shots and the one that has been selected (or discarded). Seeing the contact sheets sometimes gives you a better idea of what the photographer is looking for. Another example that comes to mind is the Diane Arbus shot of the boy with the toy hand grenade in Central Park. Looking at the contact sheet the boy looks fairly normal in most of the shots, but the in the image she chose the boy looks mentally unbalanced. I don’t pretend to know why Arbus chose that particular shot, but, for me, seeing the shots she didn’t choose make that image all the more interesting.

Diane Arbus contact sheet
Diane Arbus contact sheet

To be perfectly honest, I doubt I’d like The Photographer as much if it were just Lefèvre’s photographs. There is something about the combination of photos and illustration, and even the size and heft of the book (11.7 by 9.4 in., an inch thick, and over 2 lbs.), that makes it appealing. Though the line work is heavier and looser, the drawing style strikes me as Tintinesque. There’s a similar use of color and sense of adventure. Add to this Afghanistan being in the news a lot lately and I found myself devouring it in large chunks.

Finally, the use of the black and white reportage reminded me of something from Salman Rushdie’s novel Fury. He (or his character) found it curious that black and white photography, “the most unreal of processes,” now stood for “realism, integrity and art”. That may have been true when Rushdie originally wrote those words, or when Lefèvre shot the photos, but I wonder if today the ubiquity of color photography hasn’t left black and white photography seeming dated or, at the very least, self-consciously arty.

On a lighter note, Alec Soth’s slideshow of a trip to Las Vegas for his 40th birthday is another example of the flexibility of story telling media. People are more willing to experiment with ways of telling a story. In this case Soth, normally a still photographer, is experimenting with an A/V presentation.

One of the great things about Soth’s slideshow (other than the actual images) is how self-contained and almost circular the narrative is. It begins with him wanting to buy a limited edition of Bukowski poetry. He can’t afford the book, so being in Vegas, he tries gambling to raise the money. You can probably guess how that turns out. But don’t despair, he turns the experience into a piece of art that references both Vegas and a bit of poetry from the unattainable volume which he then sells for the price of said volume. Genius.

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