J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Photographer

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert
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's review
Dec 27, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: comics, french, non-fiction, reviewed, travelogue
Read from December 19 to 22, 2010

Non-fiction seems so easy some times. All you have to do is lead an interesting life and it's all taken care of for you: plot, characterization, twists, insights. All that remains is the compiling and editing, which is no minute task, but there is a sort of unpredictable depth in non-fiction which is hard to replicate. Many have tried, but verisimilitude is the mark of the master.

Here we have a foreigner--a Frenchman--who does not even speak the language, going on a very real modern adventure into the heart of a dangerous, forbidding, war-torn country. Here at my computer, safe and comfortable, it can be easy to forget that such adventures still exist out there, in the world, for those brave enough to grasp them.

We read our fantasies, romances, and suspense stories forgetting there are people who actually live these lives. Our small, unprepared hero wanders on tired legs with a pack-horse by his side, meeting tribal chieftains, warlords, bandits, and caravans. Overhead, Russian helicopters pass by like dragons, sending all who hear them running for cover from their merciless, capricious breaths of fire. There are long stretches where the land is blighted with mines, and all who leave the path risk being lost forever.

People believe in their religions in a surprisingly literal way, in the way which none of us could ever replicate, for their world is not one of surrounding doubts and differing opinions. Didier expresses the difficulty of this gulf: admitting he doubts existence of god, he'd hardly be believed, inciting either derision or violence.

But, of course, it is ethnocentric folly to imagine that the Afghanis are in any way a glimpse into 'primitive life', as it was long ago. They are a nation and a culture of the modern world, as uninformed or poverty-stricken as any individual member may be.

Didier and the doctor's are here to help these people, to confront this cultural conflict, and trite as it sounds, what is remarkable is not the differences they find with the locals, but the points of similarity. They work together and communicate, and despite the great differences, they find companionship, friendship, and some remarkable insights.

It perplexes me to think that reading the account of a foreigner, new to the country, ignorant of the language, naive about the culture, is able to provide a deeper and more lasting insight into this culture and the joy of its people than a fictional outing like 'The Kite Runner', even though the latter was written by a born Afghan.

Yet that book shows all the things that make realist fiction so fraught: the author is always tempted to include not only his experiences, but his own philosophies and conclusions, often through romanticized portrayals and overloaded symbolism. Thus it soon becomes a politicized mess, all the insights it might have had being lost in the author's message, showing little more knowledge of the country than one might have gotten from the past few decades of world news.

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that an outsider would be able to reveal so much, especially as he transmits to us the understanding of other outsiders who have since become enmeshed with the culture. Bias and blindness to those things most important to us are common threads in humanity, which must be constantly fought against lest they overtake us unawares. One approaching a culture from the outside still has biases, but uninformed biases are easier to shake then those which are bred in.

Didier's portrayal is kind, sometimes bordering on politically correct, though he never excuses the ignorance or meaness of individuals, expressing his frustration and disgust with the prevalent violence. But the book is also full of respect and gratitude for those to whom he connected, and with his enchantment with the land and its people, both stark, beautiful, and yet welcoming.

The form of the book is curious: Didier's photographs are interwoven with comic panels, creating a visual narrative of the journey and his experiences. The art is decidedly french, with sparse, even gestural lines and simple, expressive characters. Didier compares his journeys to his childhood memories of Tintin, and there is surely a parallel in this young Frenchman, lost in a foreign land, meeting native people friendly and menacing, escaping one danger only to slip into another, grateful for a mouthful of water, a corner to sleep in, or a smiling face.

But then such real adventures are always compelling, especially when accompanied by evocative photos. The story of the West and the Mid-East is still central to us, still unsure, alternately budding and withering, making this tale especially poignant; so much so that it takes a moment to realize that the events described herein occured thirty years ago.

There is always some fictionalization, some coyness in the portrayals even in nonfiction. The author still decides what we are shown, what is highlighted; such is the nature of journalism, or of storytelling. Taking this tale with a grain of salt, it is still inviting, mysterious, surprising, bearing the mark of verisimilitude, and I am tempted to accept it, as it is, if only because to falsify it has proven to be beyond the skill of most writers, even those with the knowledge required to create it.

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07/11 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Hans Keely I am looking forward to reading this one. Let me know what you thought.

J.G. Keely Review's up.

Hans Keely have you had a chance to read "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea" by Guy Delisle? It sounds somewhat similar to this one though I haven't yet read either.

J.G. Keely Actually, I stumbled across this one by chance while visiting the prospective in-laws. My tastes in non-fiction rarely run so modern; perhaps I should expand my horizons a bit.

Looking at the Pyongyang comic, a number of reviewers seemed to find the author painfully ethnocentric, and those who liked the book praised the way it makes us 'appreciate our freedoms', which hardly paints the picture of a thoughtful, in-depth picture of North
Korea, but then, it's hard to know, not having read it.

If you happen to read it, let me know what you think.

message 5: by Seth (new)

Seth I maybe a few years late but if you plan on reading "Exodus" do some research first. I liked it at first until I read about the true history and looked through the facts and different points of view. It is essentially a book of Western propaganda and now it makes me sick to look at.

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