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Women in photography: Veronique de Viguerie on documenting the dangerous

"I don't like to show women as victims, although with the Rohingya, there is nothing else to say; they are the victims of the victims of the victims," says photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie, who captured this striking young Rohingya girl's portrait with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens. © Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images

Since the early 2000s, French photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie's courageous and adventurous spirit, together with her drive to uncover the human truth behind global news stories, has resulted in a remarkable body of work. Along the way she has even survived a suicide bombing. Here she shares how she captures remarkable and often intimate photographs in volatile places with her Canon kit.

Veronique was first sent to Afghanistan at the age of 21. She was on a work placement in the UK, photographing British Royal Air Force (RAF) servicemen for a local paper, the Lincolnshire Echo. "Arriving in Afghanistan was like falling in love at first sight," she says. "I was amazed by everything. It was like travelling back in time; the men wearing turbans, the women in burkhas. It was all very colourful. When I came back to the UK, I finished my work experience, took all my savings, asked my grandmother to lend me enough to buy a laptop, and went back."

Intending to stay for a few months, Veronique was eventually based in Kabul for three years. Her time there included surviving a suicide bombing in a local cyber café in 2005 (the man standing next to her was killed by a grenade) as well as life-changing time spent with the Taliban.

Crucial kit for photography in dangerous places

Somali pirates on a boat with a spear floating on green murky water.
Veronique photographed Somali pirates and discovered how the men changed from ordinary fishermen to outlaws. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens. © Veronique de Viguerie
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Veronique now documents her sometimes-controversial subjects with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, as well as a Canon EOS-1D X. The cameras' robust construction is essential in the range of situations and conditions in which she works. "My cameras have been through desert storms and heavy rain in Myanmar," she says. "They fall from time to time, even down stairs, but they are still working."

In order to capture the revealing portraits of the subjects she meets, Veronique needs a collection of lenses that will suit the range of environments she finds herself in. The main lenses she uses are the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 IS USM.

"I use the 40mm to get as close as possible to the people and the action," she says. "It's very compact, reliable and great for shooting in the middle of a protest or something like that. I like the 40mm for these kinds of action pictures."

A group of young girls stare at the camera.
Saada in Yemen is very conservative – pictured here are the first generation of girls to attend school. Girls can be veiled from the age of eight, "especially if they are good looking," the female director of Tohid school told Veronique. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens. © Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images

"The 85mm has a very wide aperture, so it's easy to work with in low light. And it's beautiful for portraits to have a shallow depth of field, so you can really play with the blurred background and things like that.

"The 35mm is just a master for photo reportage; it's very quick to use and the images look natural."

Canon's fast autofocusing, particularly in low light, is vital for the kind of work Veronique does. "I had a lot of problems with older cameras because I don't have very good eyes and I rely a lot on autofocus," she continues. "If I have to take a picture quickly and discreetly, I really appreciate the quick autofocus."

A woman sits on a pink plastic chair outside, repairing a big fishing net, a baby on her lap.
At the Bodouba camp in Sittwe, Myanmar, a family works recycling fishing nets. "The baby is severely malnourished, as many Rohingya babies are," Veronique says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens. © Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images

Veronique produces many of her stories in collaboration with female journalist Manon Querouil, a friend and colleague whom she met in Kabul. Sexism is one of the many unfortunate realities of travelling to unstable parts of the world, but Veronique says that being outsiders and women has sometimes proved helpful. "I definitely think that being female is an advantage because in many countries you are like a third sex [as opposed to a local woman]. You're not really a woman like their women and you're not a man; you're something in between that is not a threat.

"You are also quite fascinating, something that they don't really understand. You have to be careful and always keep your distance, but for work and for access, it's an advantage being a woman."

Veronique is also interested in photographing women in situations of extremity, such as Rohingya women in Myanmar, Afghan policewomen and Kurdish women. "I like the idea of people who at some point have had to say 'enough' and fought for themselves," she says. "I don't like it when women are always seen as passive victims – in most cases, it's not true."

An Afghan police woman looks into the mirror.
Sara Dilamar putting on her US Special Forces uniform at home in Afghanistan. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens. © Veronique de Viguerie/FOCUS-Magazin/Reportage by Getty Images

Photographing the people she does, however, requires a range of attributes beyond photographic skill, including courage, diplomacy and determination. "You never take no for an answer," Veronique says. "If you want to do it, then you have to try if you want to succeed. If you don't try, you always have remorse.

"You have to be a human first and a photographer second. Being behind a lens can be a protection, but it shouldn't be a barrier. Don't treat people in a way you wouldn't if you weren't behind a camera, and don't allow people to treat you any differently as a photographer. Whoever you are photographing, there also has to be trust between you and your subject. Trust is very important."

Írta: Lottie Davies and David Clark


Veronique de Viguerie's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie wears a flak jacket and helmet, her Canon camera flung around her neck, and ducks beside a military vehicle. She is with a man in plain clothes who is also wearing a helmet.

Camera

Lenses

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8

A versatile, compact pancake lens. A fast maximum aperture enables low-light shooting and depth-of-field control. STM provides smooth quiet autofocus when shooting video with compatible cameras.

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