Photographer Interviews


Working as an Outsider: Danielle Villasana on Capturing Portraits of Transgender Women

July 7, 2017

By David Walker

© Danielle Villasana

Danielle Villasana depicts the everyday lives of transgender women in Peru, telling complex stories about gender identity in a country where trans women are often shown as hypersexualized in the media.

As a photojournalist from Texas who is telling stories about women’s rights in Peru, Nigeria and elsewhere, Danielle Villasana is sensitive to her status as an “outsider” and the questions it raises about her work. “It’s a positive development in the photo community that we’re asking this question about insiders versus outsiders,” she says. “It comes from a lack of diversity in the photojournalism industry, and it’s important that we ask ourselves these questions: Who am I to tell this story? What can I bring to it that’s new?”

She faced those questions about her LGBTQ work when she started showing it at portfolio reviews several years ago, “Many editors told me I shouldn’t pursue the issue because it’s ‘trendy’ or ‘everyone has done this,’” she recalls. “I’m glad I didn’t listen.”

She felt compelled to pursue the work by a personal connection to the subject, and her sense of justice. Villasana dated women when she was in her 20s, and that experience galvanized her, she says. “I think it’s a big issue when people can’t access basic human rights because [other] people have a problem with their identity, and if there is something I can do to try to change that, then I should,” she says.

© Danielle Villasana

Early viewers of Villasana’s work sometimes discouraged her from pursuing LGBTQ topics because they were “trendy,” but she’s glad she persisted. © Danielle Villasana

Through her early work photographing LGBTQ subjects, Villasana met a transgender woman, which eventually led to her award-winning project about transgender women in Lima, Peru. Going into the project, she thought most media were getting the story about trans women wrong. They showed the women as “hypersexualized, deconstructed objects only capable of prostitution. These stories dangerously focus on the superficiality of sex rather than the complexities of gender identity,” she says.

In Lima, the local media also tended to depict the women as thieves and criminals, Villasana says. She attributed those negative depictions to machismo, and to conservative social and religious values that so marginalize trans women in the first place, they have little choice but to turn to prostitution to survive.

Villasana didn’t ignore the sex work of her subjects—it’s an integral part of their story, she explains—but she saw it as far from the complete story. “I’m sensitive to making sure I’m photographing all aspects of a story,” including images that showed their relationships and how they live their lives day to day.

It hasn’t been easy to eschew a sensational approach. Villasana recalls that when a well-known photographer critiqued her work, he told her: “Don’t photograph the daily life stuff. That’s boring. Nobody wants to see that. They want to see the sexy stuff.” She concedes that the “sexy stuff” is a lot easier to get published. But to give in to that, she says, “just contributes to the stereotypes in the media.” It’s important to show the many sides of subjects’ lives, she explains, “so we’re not creating the same narrative over and over again, which is most of the time largely negative.”

© Danielle Villasana

When people lack basic human rights, “if there is something I can do to try to change that, then I should,” she says. © Danielle Villasana

To her subjects, of course, she’s an outsider they had no particular reason to trust. Villasana worked hard to overcome that, in order to get the access she needed to tell the story with depth. “Photographs don’t come first. It’s building relationships, getting to know someone, getting to know the issues, doing a ton of research, building trust with someone. And then taking pictures.”

She explained to subjects that she was trying to raise awareness about their lives, and use that to affect positive change for them. But she also offered to help more directly, though she wouldn’t give them money. She recalls saying when she first met one of her subjects, “It’s fine if you don’t want to be photographed. I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

Villasana proceeded to make sure the woman, who had tuberculosis and HIV, had a healthcare volunteer to oversee her medications and other needs. “She had no friends, no family. She had nobody,” says Villasana, adding, “Yeah, I did cross the line between caretaker and photographer. But am I going to leave her there to die? I’m not going to do that.

“We can only hope our stories create change, but if there are opportunities to help [subjects] on a personal individual level, I feel it is my duty to do that, otherwise I would just be taking, taking, taking,” Villasana says.

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