[Guest post by Zainab Cheema]
What is the relationship between the graphic novel and war and affect? And how do panels render the tricky dynamic between remembering, feeling, and archiving? These questions were elicited by my encounter with The Photographer, the masterly 1986 illustrated-photographic record of Didier Lefevre’s journey with Doctors with Borders in order to establish a hospital in an Afghanistan torn by war with Soviet Union.
The 2008 edition of The Photographer has an introduction which contextualizes the work with 9/11 and the US’s subsequent War with Afghanistan. As many have noted, the comics-photograph supplementation enables the book to fold together an event (the 1986 war in Afghanistan), experience (Lefevre’s personal and representational struggles adjusting to the warzone), and multi-dimensional currents of affect released by the junctures of image-text. The photos offer an ethnographic look at Afghanistan, presented through peoples, tribes, landscapes. The comic panels shade in affective tenor of situations, interactions, responses.
For instance, there a sequence where Lefevre is stranded in the Kalotac Pass with his horse, as a snowstorm engulfs the dangerous terrain. The snow temporarily alleviates the danger of bombing raids conducted by Soviet planes over the area. As the snow fills the pass, the abject figure of the man and his horse, the figures are slowly shaded into black silhouettes engulfed within a backdrop of grey-olive green. The tight panels constrict around the silhouettes so as to capture the immediacy of Lefevre’s bodily struggles in the snowstorm, blending together human and animal—suddenly, this breaks into a double page spread of a single photograph of the spectacular valley, shaded by snow and storm clouds.
The Photographer is full of such unquiet moments—the unquiet disjuncture between visual testimony to stunning terrains or to interpersonal intimacies across ethnic and national borders, and the taxing act of witnessing with one’s body what its like to live in a warzone. Lefevre documents his painful illnesses, the boils that break over his body, or his physical responses to the wounds suffered by Afghans. And yet, we know that witnessing can be compulsive. When Lefevre in Pakistan prepares for his flight back to France, riding buses while listening to French jazz singer Michel Jonasz and promising to see his friends his Paris, he thinks to himself: “I feel like going back [to Afghanistan]”.
As Sontag and Barthes have noted, the photograph is intimately tied to the act of mourning. So are comics, as Maus so eminently proves. Sontag also establishes the link between the photograph and affect, in its indeterminacy as icon: “They drift between shores of perception, between sign and image, without ever approaching either . . . In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it” (On Photography 20). At the end of The Photographer, we are reminded of this yet again, as Lefevre visits a British cemetery in Pakistan before his flight to France. The photo-comic-graphic rendering of the graveyard taps the affective charge of the in-between spaces of representation and experience, pointing backwards to the process of signifying and forwards to prophecy—Lefevre would eventually die in 2007 of complications from health problems he contracted in Afghan warzone. “I find this cemetery very moving,” reads the panel next to his portrait photo, “I come back in the following days.” If iconicity in war is compulsive, it is because it is prolific in the face of foreclosure, where there is no movement except that of returning.