MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Turn back the clock to 1986. Cold War is in full swing, the Soviet Union is 7 years into its occupation of Afghanistan, and Afghan resistance fighters, the mujahedeen, are making life very difficult for Soviet troops. Afghanistan was as dangerous in 1986 as it is today. That didn't stop the humanitarian group ï¿½Doctors without Bordersï¿½ from going in. A new book portrays the journey one photographer took with the group into war-torn Afghanistan. Here's The World's Clark Boyd.
CLARK BOYD: It's hard to put into words just how difficult it was for Doctors without Borders to deliver medical aid and care to rural Afghans in the year 1986. Volunteer doctors and nurses would gather in the Pakistani city Peshawar. They would be trained for a few months, and then wait ï¿½ sometimes for weeks ï¿½ to cross illegally into Afghanistan. The volunteers traveled with convoys of Afghan guerrillas and local farmers, not to mention dozens of mules and horses laden with tons of medical supplies. A Doctors without Borders video, shot in 1984, tells part of the tale.
VIDEO CLIP: From the day we cross the border, it will take us about 28 days to reach the first hospital and a further 4 days to reach the second hospital. It's impossible for us to use the main roads that the tanks and army convoys use, so we travel over the mountains.
BOYD: And not just any mountains ï¿½ we're talking the Himalayas, through 7 passes of more than 15,000 feet. Juliette Fournot did this journey innumerable times. She was Doctors without Borders head of mission in Afghanistan during the 1980s, in the years of the Soviet occupation. And while her first concern was bringing medical care to Afghans, she found herself worrying about something else.
JULIETTE FOURNOT: I was very concerned that there was no coverage of what was going on inside Afghanistan. And the few war correspondents that would go there would only bring back some meager military-oriented reports on what was going on in Afghanistan, but not really covering the suffering and real life of the Afghan people.
BOYD: So in 1986, Fournot decided to invite a photojournalist to accompany one of her missions into Afghanistan. She chose French photographer Didier Lefevre. Fournot had seen some of Lefevre's pictures from Eritrea hanging on the walls of Doctors without Borders main office in Paris. Lefevre accepted the offer. He grabbed his cameras, and headed for Peshawar and then into Afghanistan.
FOURNOT: Didier had this incredible capacity to disappear in the scenery, in the environment.
BOYD: Again, Juliette Fournot.
FOURNOT: Before he was taking pictures, he was being with the people, engaging in a relationship with the people. He was accepted and adopted in the group. And that's the key with the Afghans. Before you even want to work there, you have to gain their respect and the right to help them.
BOYD: Lefevre spent four grueling months with the Doctors without Borders team in Afghanistan. It took a toll. He returned to France in bad shape. He was exhausted and malnourished. He lost 14 teeth. But he carried with him some 4,000 photographs. Lefevre considered himself lucky to get six of them published in a two-page spread in the French daily ï¿½Liberationï¿½. He boxed up the rest of the photos and went on to other photo jobs ï¿½ until 1999. That's when a childhood friend of Lefevre's prodded him a bit. That friend just happened to be graphic novelist and comics artist Emmanuel Guibert.
GUIBERT: One day, I was in his home in the Parisian suburbs, and after a good lunch, I asked him to choose one of the missions he had done in the 20 past years and to be kind enough to tell it to me. So he disappeared into his workshop and he came back with boxes. And in these boxes were the mission in Afghanistan.
BOYD: Guibert says he was astounded. Lefevre showed him the contact sheets ï¿½ small versions of all the pictures laid out in sequence on countless pages.
GUIBERT: He started to point at the pictures, one after the other, and to comment what was in the pictures. And soon I realized that I was reading a comic ï¿½ the contact sheets look like the pages of a graphic novel or comic ï¿½ and his voice was like the voice of a narrator who would tell what is happening. So at the end of this afternoon, I proposed to him that we make a book together.
BOYD: Lefevre agreed. They worked together for about four years, figuring out how best to combine Lefevre's photos with Guibert's drawings. The result was a graphic novel called ï¿½The Photographer.ï¿½ In France, it was published in three parts, starting in 2003. Now, it has been collected and translated into English. The release of the book in the United States coincides with an exhibition of Lefevre's work at a gallery in Brooklyn. I walked through the exhibit with Juliette Fournot. She stops in front of a stark black-and-white portrait Lefevre took of an Afghan boy about to undergo treatment.
FOURNOT: He's kind of looking at us, straight in the eye, with no smile, his left arm is hanging down, showing a through and through gunshot wound on his wrist.
BOYD: There's not a single tear on the boy's face.
FOURNOT: And what strikes me ï¿½ and it's quite often happening with the Afghan children ï¿½ is the maturity of his eyes and his expression. He's like a little adult of 10 years old.
BOYD: In another of Lefevre's photographs, a toddler stands among armed mujahadeen.
FOURNOT: I like this picture here. This picture, for me, is like a symbol. This little tiny guy, looking up with his bare feet with these immense mujahadeen with their guns, is almost questioning, ï¿½What world are you going to make for me?ï¿½
BOYD: ï¿½The Photographerï¿½ was published to great acclaim in France. Co-author Emmanuel Guibert says Didier Lefevre was pleased with the book's success.
GUIBERT: We were, Didier and I, side by side one day, and we were signing books in the bookstore. And I stopped drawing and I looked at him as he was signing one of them, and he was writing, ï¿½I claim this is photojournalism.ï¿½ So that meant for me that he was satisfied we had made a certain kind of justice to this mission, and at last, this mission was told from the beginning to the end.
BOYD: Lefevre re-visited Afghanistan numerous times over the years. His last trip there was in 2006. He didn't live to see the English version of ï¿½The Photographerï¿½ come out, or to see his pictures from that 1986 Afghanistan mission on display in New York City. He died of heart failure in January of 2007, just two days after receiving a French award for ï¿½The Photographerï¿½. Friend and co-author Emmanuel Guibert says Lefevre deserved that award and more.
GUIBERT: His work was impossible to separate from his personality. And he worked in a way that looked like him -- and this is out of reach of death and it's something that remains. And it's why this work should circulate a lot and be recognized by not only his profession but by a wide public, because there's a very precious and interesting human look in these photographs ï¿½ full of understanding, full of questions, full of doubts, full of human warmth and friendship, which were his main qualities.
BOYD: Lefevre left behind boxes and boxes of other unpublished photographs. Some document the rebuilding of Albanian communities in post-conflict Kosovo; others, the devastating effect of HIV/AIDS in Malawi and Cambodia. Emmanuel Guibert says he would like to produce more graphic novels based on these photos, but that it won't be the same without the voice of his friend, Didier Lefevre, the photographer. For The World, this is Clark Boyd.