06.12.10

The World's Bravest Photographer

War photography is still a male-dominated profession—but a few women are breaking out. Danielle Friedman talks to Veronique de Viguerie, a rising star among photojournalists.

Veronique de Viguerie was on her way to the Somali coast when the thought flashed through her head: What am I doing? It wasn’t the first time the young French photographer had sought out a risky assignment, but this was perhaps the riskiest yet.

De Viguerie had sent a message to the group, who called themselves the Central Regional Coast Guard—even though what they did was hijack ships and kidnap their crews for ransom.

She wanted to photograph them. And now the pirates were waiting.

As in the past, de Viguerie’s gender proved to be an asset. The pirates expected the photographer to be a man, and were surprised—and amused—to meet this small, blond woman. Over the next several days, draped in a traditional Somali hijab, she snapped a remarkable series of photographs of the Muslim pirates patrolling the shores, rocket-propelled grenades in hand. Her unthreatening demeanor, she believes, was part of what allowed her access to their rarely documented world. And despite early jitters, she felt only “a kind of apprehension, but not real fear,” she told The Daily Beast.

Based in Paris, de Viguerie is a rising star in a profession still dominated by men. At 32, she has already earned a slew of honors, including Canon’s prestigious Female Photojournalist of the Year Award in 2006. Her work regularly appears in Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Marie-Claire, and The Guardian.

Her approach to each assignment is to try to capture the human face of the often-violent subjects and, in so doing, she isn’t afraid to shadow Somali pirates or embed herself with Taliban fighters or American troops.

"I have worked with many photographers in the field, all over the world," Régis Le Sommier, deputy editor in chief of the popular French magazine Paris Match, told The Daily Beast in an email. "I believe [Veronique] is one of the most daring and promising photographers of her generation."

Raised in an upper-middle-class family in southern France, de Viguerie earned a law degree before discovering a passion for photography. In 2003, she landed a job at the Lincolnshire Echo, a small newspaper in eastern England, and she was soon sent on assignment in Afghanistan. Deeply curious about the country and its people, de Viguerie opted to live in Afghanistan, working freelance, instead of traveling back and forth, like other photographers typically do.

One day, she was checking her email in an Internet café in Kabul when a suicide bomber hit. The walls and ceiling crashed in, and the people sitting next to her and behind her were both killed. De Viguerie crawled out of a blown-out window, unscathed. “I was very lucky that day,” she said.

Despite this, and many other near-death episodes, she decided to stay in Afghanistan, trying to document the human cost of the escalating violence. She also wanted to photograph Taliban fighters—the Holy Grail for photographers in the country—and managed to get access, in part, she believes, because of her gender. As a foreigner and a woman, “you’re kind of a third sex,” she said. “You’re not really a man, but not really a woman. It’s kind of convenient.”

Having established contact with the Taliban, she was surprised by what she found. “I was thinking I was going to meet the Devil,” she said. “But some of them were quite nice young guys.” Many were without much formal education and had joined the Taliban because of a lack of options. Desperation paves the way to extremism, she said. “It rarely happens that people are nasty just to be nasty.”

But her empathy with her subjects doesn’t always win her friends at home. In 2008, shortly after a militant group ambushed and killed 10 French soldiers, she photographed the fighters who had done it. In a disturbing custom, the men had pilfered weapons and uniforms from the dead soldiers; in her photographs, they displayed them like trophies. When Paris Match published the spread, critics condemned de Viguerie, arguing that the Taliban had used her to spread their propaganda.

Having established contact with the Taliban, she was surprised by what she found. “I was thinking I was going to meet the Devil,” she said. “But some of them were quite nice young guys.”

“The Taliban are waging a war of communication with this kind of operation,” France’s Defense Minister Hervé Morin said, during a radio interview. “They have understood that public opinion is probably the Achilles' heel of the international community that is present in Afghanistan.”

De Viguerie is unrepentant. “Our job is to give people the option to make up their own minds,” she said. “I don’t think it’s our job to censor. We give people the information, and they do their own thinking.”

Reflecting on her portfolio, de Viguerie is particularly proud of a series of images that juxtapose American and Taliban fighters engaging in similar activities: training, praying, hanging out. She was struck by the similarities between the men she’d met—including the fact that both camps shared little curiosity about the other side. To each, the enemy was just the enemy. “It was shocking for me,” she said. “I thought, maybe these people could have been friends in another place."

Danielle Friedman has worked as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. Her writing has been published in the Miami Herald, and on Double X and CNN.com. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.