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Photographic Evidence

Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer remains one of the most impressive graphic works released in the past year. We’re late in getting this interview to you—it took place over the summer at a signing at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn—but it’s worth getting it to you now as a reminder of how great this book is. So enjoy the conversation about one of our favorite books of 2009.

This is one of the most interesting books that I’ve read. There are a number of reasons, the first because it’s a fabulous story—and one about a part of the world I knew little about. But beyond that, it’s the design of the book, which is a marriage of photographs with graphics. So my first question to you is how did the idea for this book come about?
I had a very good friend whom I met when I was 14 and he was 21. We lived in the same building in Paris, and we were neighbors. And at the time, of course, difference of age made us strangers because a 14-year-old boy and a 21-year-old man are a lot different. But time passed, and my first idea of him when I used to see Didier in the entrance of the building, for instance, was that he looked very bright, always smiling, very sympathetic. So I always thought it would be good to become friends with this man.

When we had the chance to have a five-minute conversation between two doors, he would tell me what he was doing at the time, and I would tell him what I was hoping to do in the future. At the time, he was a student in biology, and he wanted to travel. So first, he made his missionary service in the Horn of Africa. It was an important experience for him, so as soon as he came back to Paris [after becoming a biologist], he told me he was to leave once again very quickly [with] Doctors Without Borders. So he left once again for the Horn of Africa. Every time he left, he would bring with him a little camera, because he had this passion for photography. Bit by bit, he realized that he became more interested in photography and less interested in biology.
 
And then something happened. He was coming back to France, and he had to pass by Khartoum, which is the capital of Sudan. And the day he arrived, the airport was locked. There was a complete blackout on the city because there was something going on. So he had to stay in the [Doctors Without Borders] house in Khartoum, and in this same house was stuck this great photographer. They had this conversation because they were like in jail for a few days. And Didier realized they were two photographers, one professional, one amateur in Khartoum at the same time.
 
So when he got back to France, he sold his pictures to the Worldwide Press. And that gave him the pulse to definitely become a professional photographer. This was around ’82, ’83. He decided to remain in the Doctors Without Borders organization and become the Doctors Without Borders photographer. One day in ’86, a woman grabbed him by the sleeve in the corridors of the lobby of the Doctors Without Borders of Paris and said, “I’m leaving to Afghanistan for a mission; I’d like you to come with me.” He was always ready for this kind of adventure, so he said yes. During this mission, he took 4,000 photographs within four months. It’s kind of normal for a professional photographer.
 
And it wasn’t digital photographs; it was film.
It was film, so he had to carry the films in backpacks, which were rather heavy. And when he came back, he was lucky enough to publish six of the photographs in an important French newspaper, which was fantastic. He had a nice double-page spread with the six pictures and a short article written by a journalist. And that was like the apotheosis of this trip.
 
The rest of these 4,000 pictures were put into boxes, and these boxes were placed on shelves. And they remained there for 18 years, until the day Emanuel invited me into his home for lunch. We weren’t neighbors anymore, but we had kept in touch. We had a delicious lunch; he prepared me some sausages. And then afterward, we had this whole afternoon in front of us.
 
And I asked him, “If you could choose from all the missions you’ve done since the very beginning of your professional life, pick one of them and tell me about it. I’d be delighted to hear a good story.” He thought for a while, and I saw him disappear into his workshop. And when he came back, he had these boxes in his hand and, boom, put them on my knees.
 
He opened the first one, and in those boxes were the contact sheets of his photographs. I realize now that contact sheets look like the page of a graphic novel or a comic book. They are panels, side by side. So I had the photographer who had taken those photographs sitting by my side giving me a running commentary on what had happened in them. You have the official voice, and you really read the images because you know what happens in them. He says, “Here we are arriving, and I’m taking this rickshaw as we are going around the city, etc.” So, it’s very vivid. I spent an extraordinary afternoon with him.
 
He was a very good storyteller, the kind of person—as we say in France—you hang onto the lips of and wait for the rest of the story. So I asked a few questions, but most of all, I remained silent. But I was thinking a lot about the injustice made to these pictures, which had been sleeping in these boxes for years. So while he was talking, I was thinking, “What can I do with this fantastic stuff to make it circulate?” For me, the answer was natural: I made books. I thought it should be a book. But as soon as I thought that, I had the intuition that, of course, these photographs had to be present in the book and maybe mixed up with drawings. My drawings would be there, the text would be there to replace the words of Didier and his finger pointing and the pictures. Because what I wanted was really to put the reader in my situation.
 
At the end of the afternoon, we were about to leave each other, and I said to him we should make a book together. He was quite surprised because he wasn’t expecting that at all from me. So he said, “Are you sure?” Because like people who have had very interesting lives, they also have stories, he knew this story was very interesting, but he had no idea if it would really interest a great amount of people. Plus, he was a very humble person, and he never was sure that everything he gathered and brought back from his reporting would interest others. As we see with lots of very other clever people, he was full of doubt.
 
In the book, you covered everything he’d been through over there. And you read at the end that he did eight different trips. One would have done me in, so it was really interesting to see what he felt.
He was always ready for Afghanistan. He had a big crush on this country. And it’s the same for all the members of this mission. I guess they have had a very special time together. Sometimes you have groups that don’t work at all because obviously people there are not fit for each other. And sometimes by miracle you have a real team. And they were a team. And they still are. He died in 2007 at age 47 of a heart attack, leaving two children. And I had the fortune to see them together before his death, and it was magnificent. I mean, it’s beautiful to see friends, real friends, and you’re there in a corner of the room, in an angle of the room, and you see two persons who haven’t seen each other in a year or 15 years or 20 years, whatever, but they’ve been friends. I mean, it’s contagious; you really absorb that. And it’s something that does you really good. I saw them bury this man, and the same feeling was there. Even though he was dead, there was something untouchable about him. They had been through this experience together, and they are home anywhere in the world, these persons. I mean, nothing scares them. They’ve been as far as human beings can go to help others, and at quite a tender age—they were between 25 and 35 years old. And it wasn’t the first mission for most of them, and not the last.
 
You’ve been in the States for a little bit now, discussing The Photographer. But before you go back to France, you also got to spend some time with one of the doctors from the book, Juliet.
We spent the most delicious evening together yesterday. I think within friendship, there’s always a certain amount of admiration when you are friends, even though you don’t say it all the time. It’s always because once the person you like has impressed you in a way, you say, “Oh, what she’s doing or he’s doing is something. I like that person now.” And when you think about Juliet, she was raised in Afghanistan between [the ages of] 11 and 18, so she speaks the Afghan language as well as she speaks French. She may be a little rusty now because it’s been years, but at the time, they were all totally immersed. So they had to live really in the middle of the population. Part of the job of Juliet before each mission was to teach the language to the doctors and to teach them, most of all, the customs of the country. We were together [for an interview about the book], and a journalist was asking what one should do in Afghanistan to make things better, and she said that one should know the Afghans and not feel superior to them in any way and try to listen to these people and learn what they have to give and try to behave in a way not to shock them because once it’s done, it’s too late.
 
Didn’t she dress as a man while she was there in the book?
She dressed as a man, but since the very beginning, she insisted that there be women on this mission because only women can cure women in Afghanistan. So it was very important. And this period of history is very interesting. What is happening today in the world is not really related to what was happening in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Juliet had her first doctors held hostage because they didn’t want the doctors to come to the country anymore because they didn’t want women to be cured and because they didn’t want to see foreign women on their soil. And Juliet negotiated the freedom of her doctors with bin Laden, for instance, in ’84, which is quite a long time ago, the first time she met him. But she fully remembers the episode. One of her keys of access to these persons was that she knew exactly how to behave, so she dressed properly, she never raised her eyes. And she obtained the freedom of the doctors, but right after, she rushed right to the American Embassy because she had to see someone who was responsible for giving the money to these persons, because as you know at the time, America was filling the pockets of all these people. And she met a man who was responsible for this program of financing these guerillas. And she said to be very careful because they’re going—she didn’t say they’re going to bite the hand that feeds them. She couldn’t imagine, of course, what was going to happen on 9/11. But she said they’re going to turn against you. And you won’t be able to do anything with this country in a few years if you keep on giving money to these people who are totally destroying the social canvas of this country. And all she got was, “You’re a doctor. Mind your business.” And she says, “When I saw the two towers fall”—she was in Minneapolis at the time—“I was screaming the name of the man I met that day,” who is retired with a nice swimming pool in Los Angeles now, who was responsible for years and year for feeding and giving weapons to this crazy man.
 
What I love about the book is the pace. The way you have juxtaposed large drawings and multipaneled art gives the story visual impact. Can you talk a little about the three sections of the book? Why were there three sections and how are the three sections telling the story?
There are some differences between the American and the French version. The French version is published in three volumes, so the three parts, the three big chapters of the American version, are the three French volumes. The cutting is very simple. The first volume is the trip, the way to the place where they settle down and operate. The second volume is the story of the doctors. It’s really the mission itself as they start to cure people there. The third volume is the way back. I have always considered the whole story as one story, so I am very happy it’s being published as one book in America, because it makes sense, and it’s meant to be read as one book.
 
One thing we don’t have in the American version that we may have if everything goes well and if lots of Americans are interested in this book, is that, later, we hope to see the DVD that has been inserted in the French version, which is really the film of the mission. And when you read the book, you realize that Juliet is carrying this camcorder, and, in ’86, camcorders were large and heavy.
Well, heavy, but much, much less than real cameras. She shot 18 hours of rescues during these missions. These doctors who were walking in these very remote parts of Afghanistan were the only ones to know exactly what was happening there. But nothing else had been done with these images, so it was like the photographs of Didier; these images were sleeping. So I said to Juliet, “If I can convince my publisher to produce a documentary, could you please get back to these 18 hours of video and try to extract 40 or 50 minutes out of them?” So she accepted, and she did this movie, which is very interesting because the book is the photographer’s point of view, but the movie is the doctor’s point of view.
 
What’s also interesting is the packing of medicine. The pills would disintegrate if they weren’t packed correctly because the journey was so bad. It’s something that you just don’t think about. And even when they got to the villages, having to treat certain people even though they knew it was hopeless—because it was the right thing to do, it was the correct, respectful kind of thing to do. For the doctors, it was a matter of “This is the code I need to follow, or they won’t trust us at all.”
Yeah, you’re right. For instance, one doctor was sitting at a place that was the center of the valley, and this very important person [came to him]. He had a bullet [lodged for a year] in his arm, and this arm was dead; it wouldn’t respond anymore. But they had to examine him very closely to show respect. So it was like knowing how to deal with the problems of hierarchy and power, which are very important, not only in Afghanistan. So they knew year after year how to behave better and better.

-- Carol Fitzgerald