Skip to main content

Véronique de Viguerie spent a month chronicling a Middle Eastern country’s struggle with civil war and a Saudi blockade. Now, she’s the first woman in 20 years to win the prestigious Visa d’Or prize. Here’s what she told The Globe and Mail’s Shelby Blackley about the experience

Open this photo in gallery:

Schoolgirls in Saada, a stronghold of Yemen's Houthi rebels that was heavily damaged in fighting. The Houthis, a Shia movement backed by Iran, rose up in 2014 against the internationally recognized government in Sanaa, which is being supported by a Saudi-led coalition. Both sides are still embroiled in civil war.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Photojournalist Véronique de Viguerie’s month in Yemen with reporter Manon Quérouil-Bruneel put a spotlight on the country’s civil war and earned Ms. de Viguerie the Visa d’Or, the top prize at the Visa pour l’image: International Festival of Photojournalism, held annually in Perpignan, France. Her work for Time and Paris Match, called “Yemen, The Hidden War,” includes a body of photographs that provide a haunting window into the day-to-day struggles of civilians trapped in Yemen under Saudi Arabia’s blockade. The 40-year old from Carcassonne, France, is the first woman in 20 years and the fifth woman ever to win the prestigious award.

How did it feel to have this body of work recognized?

It obviously feels very good. I’m very pleased that Yemen is finally getting into the light of the world. I think that’s why we do this job in the first place, to enlighten situations we find unfair or need to be reported on. You can sometimes lose your purpose in your job thinking it’s not going to change anything, but at least, if at the end, you can say that people can say they know, it’s an accomplishment.

Open this photo in gallery:

Véronique de Viguerie in front of her exhibition, Yemen: The Hidden War, in Perpignan, southern France.RAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images

You mentioned with the collection that it was really important to be able to tell these stories ‘from the inside.’ Tell me about being in Yemen and seeing what it was like.

You put a human face on it, which is always more moving or more striking. We were thinking that we didn’t see anything about Yemen for a while in the news. We decided it was a good idea to work on that. It took us one year to get all of those [applications] to get there. Once we were there, after all of those obstacles, it got more complicated.

At some point we decided we couldn’t work like this and we need to escape from the Houthis' control. As soon as we escaped, they started getting really difficult with us. Following us, trying to arrest us, accusing us of being spies. And then we couldn’t really get out of the country for one month. But it gave us an opportunity to live like them for a little short while. The people in Yemen, they’re there forever. But us, only a month, we could understand a little bit how the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia affected the people there. How it is difficult to go somewhere, there are no doctors, teachers, everything there is so expensive and it’s a luxury to buy food.

Open this photo in gallery:

This boy in Saada was injured in an air strike on Oct. 28, 2017, as he was looking after his animals. He was treated at the public hospital.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

A lot of photos in the award-winning collection focus on children. Was this an intention of your work or happenstance?

Since I’m a mother of two, myself, it resonated more with us. You see children dying of hunger or dying of illnesses like a cough or diarrhea, you can’t stay in such a bowl about that. With children, there’s no doubt with them. You can’t say they are from that side or another side. They are suffering from the blockade more than anybody and it was the best way to show that they are innocent people.

As a woman in Yemen, what was it like? Were there difficulties or advantages?

Actually, it was a very good asset, I would even say indispensable. We could only arrive in Aden, which is in the south, and to go north to Sanaa under Houthi rebels, you have to be smuggled in illegally. The only way to do that was to hide behind a burka. It was a 12-hour road trip with about 70 checkpoints along the way, and you could only pass through a checkpoint if you hide behind the burka because at the checkpoints, the soldiers will never speak to the women. You won’t get caught. To be honest, if we had been men, they would have put us in jail.

When we work on these assignments, we are two blondes with blue eyes and everybody always ask us, ‘How do you do what you do with your physique and go to these places?’ and all that. I’m a bit tired of this question, but I understand it. I don’t see why you need to have a certain physique to go to a war zone.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Open this photo in gallery:

Beggars peer in through a window in Saada. Yemen, with 29 million inhabitants, is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, and the civil war has only worsened its problems of famine, unemployment and internal displacement.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Open this photo in gallery:

An orphanage in Sanaa. These children either lost their parents to the war or were given up by parents who, displaced by fighting and unable to work, were unable to take care of their families.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Open this photo in gallery:

Locals stand in a ruined neighbourhood of Sanaa after Saudi-led coalition forces bombed populated areas, Nov. 11, 2017. Twelve houses got damaged and 12 civilians were rescued out of the rubble; eight were wounded, mainly children and women.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Open this photo in gallery:

Ohood Dammajj, 22 months old when this picture was taken, weighed only 5.5 kilograms. She suffered severe malnutrition and was treated at Sabeen Hospital in Sanaa. The United Nations food agency has issued dire warnings about the human cost of famine in Yemen; figures released earlier this month said 8.4 million would face starvation without aid.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Open this photo in gallery:

Badria Khaleb Mohamed prays and cries at the grave of her 23-years-old son, Mohammed, killed in an air strike on Aug. 25, 2017, that killed 16 civilians.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Open this photo in gallery:

There is no drinkable or running water in Sanaa. All water is transported by tanks and jugs, like the empty ones shown here.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Open this photo in gallery:

Displaced children sleep in the streets in Ibb, Yemen. The international charity Save The Children has said 5.2 million Yemeni children are at risk from famine.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Open this photo in gallery:

At the prosthetic limb centre in Sanaa, Ahmed Sagaf, a land-mine survivor, is learning how to walk with his new leg. He had to say that he was 18 years old to enroll in the army, even though his comrades say he was only 13. He cannot wait to go back to the front line to fight.Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images Reportage

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe