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.
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.
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.