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.
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.
Johnson ended up making portraits for Pacific Standard of residents
of an encampment named Tent City 3. He gained access through a
nonprofit that funds and administers the camp. While working with
his large-format camera, which helped him establish an intimate
relationship with his subjects, Johnson also recorded interviews
with them that were upwards of an hour. They were edited into
written stories that complement the photos in print and online.
“I wanted that [photographer-subject] relationship to be clear
and transparent, and then [to] give [the residents] some ownership
of the story that they’re trying to tell,” he explains. “It’s very easy,
especially in Seattle right now, to just buzz by, and understand that
those are people but not really connect with them, so this was an
opportunity for me, sort of selfishly, to connect with them.”
Through the portraits and interviews, readers learn about the
lives of several people, including Catie and Marc, a couple from
Oklahoma who moved to Seattle for better medical services; and
Pete, a man born and raised in Seattle who lost his family and home
because of his drinking. “Every single person that I spoke with,
even people I didn’t photograph, felt that they were ignored and
had been pushed out of sight,” Johnson says. “Having an opportunity
to talk about what led them to that situation or what was going on
was really important to them.”
By working through the nonprofit, and by seeking permission
from the committee of residents responsible for governing the tent
community, Johnson was able to make his goals and intentions
clear. The committee agreed to allow him into the encampment if he
promised to photograph only those who wished to participate.
He spent his first couple of days in the camp without a camera,
getting to know the residents and figuring out who was willing to
participate and who wasn’t. Then he brought his camera and began
to work. No one asked him for money, Johnson says, but he told
them up front he would bring them a print. —CONOR RISCH
Above: 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.
DAnielle villAsAnA on
PortrAying trAnsgenDer Women
“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.“
— DAnielle villAsAnA