Danielle Villasana

The Argus’ Emmy Peterson Skypes with independent human rights journalist Danielle Villasana about her work on transgender people in Peru, the future of long form photojournalism, and her current work with the survivors of Boko Haram in Nigeria.


E: What made you start wanting to photograph the transgender community in Peru?

D: In college I started a multimedia project on LGBTQ families in Texas. I documented four different families and one of those families was about the life of a transgender woman. While I had always been familiar with lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, I had never really [known much about transgender people]. I spent quite a lot of time with her [Nikki Araguz] who’s very interesting and has an amazing story. It really opened up my eyes to what it means to be transgender and the challenges they go face

I believe that a lot of transphobia comes from misunderstanding of what it means to be transgender.

I was very inspired by Nikki and her story. The following summer I recieved a grant from my university and I went to Argentina, originally planning on doing a story about the Muslims community there but that fell through. My plan B was to focus on the transgender community because at the time [2012] Argentina had just passed the world’s most progressive set of gender identity laws, still to date.

pageimage-520617-4314535-libertad_09I followed the lives of three people; one transgender man and then two women (from the to be reborn series http://www.daniellevillasana.com/volver-a-nacer). My experiences in Argentina opened up my eyes and inspired me even more, so for my last semester as a college student I decided to study abroad. I double majored in Spanish, so naturally I wanted to study somewhere in Latin America. Long story short I decided on Peru and once I started thinking about going to Peru, I started wondering if the transgender community in Argentina has these laws protecting them and supporting them, what is it like in Peru? So I started researching beforehand and of course was completely shocked by what I found out. For example, 30% of trans women in Peru are infected with HIV. By the time I got to Lima I already knew that it was something I wanted to focus on.

I had an internship at a newspaper in Lima so I just started asking my colleagues and co-workers there if they knew anything about the transgender community or where I could get in touch with them.

I tried reaching out to NGOs while I was in the U.S. but I didn’t really get any responses, so it was just something I decided to do on my own. One evening as we were leaving the newspaper one of my colleagues offered to show me where they work and live. It was ten or twelve blocks away from the newspaper which is located in the historical downtown. He took me down there and actually the photo of the woman getting arrested and pulled away by the police from the series in Lima was actually taken that night.


The first night I went down there I was like oh wow, this is exactly like what I read. I think I was in the right place at the right time for that picture. As I continued to work on the project for about two and a half years, I realized that even though arrests happen frequently, it’s really hard to be there when it happens. A lot of the time I would hear that there’s a police raid happening, so I’d run a few blocks and by the time I got there it’s gone. It was just pure luck that shot. But from that night forward, I kept going back to the community. 

“I have my ID, my friends and my family. What more can I ask for? I just want to get out of here. I thought I wasn’t going to make it out of here," said Piojo.E: So it sounds like it was all a very natural progression then?

D: Yes, absolutely and I hope to continue to work on it because I really believe in these women. Even though I moved from Peru in December, I am still close to this community. I recently found out that one woman I knew quite well died from Tuberculosis and AIDS. What’s ironic about her death is that she was a friend of another woman I knew who died from the same complications, Piojo, whose story is on my website. Her [Piojo’s] friend away was helping me at that time taking care of her and almost exactly a year later she died of the same thing. SoI really care about these women. It’s this huge human rights issue and people are – especially in Lima – just letting it happen; nobody cares. It’s and issue I will continue to work on, I just needed some distance. The constant violence and death in the community was getting overwhelming for me, because it was something I was witnessing every single day for two years.and a lot of women looked to me for answers, which I didn’t always have, though I try in the way I can..

Tamara smokes a cigarette while dancing in her room.

E: What challenges did you face photographically and emotionally with this project?

D: After that first night when I photographed the arrest I really waited until I started taking pictures. I would go down to the neighbourhood and hang out, talk with the women. I was always very clear and honest about who I was, what I was doing there and what my intentions were, but I didn’t take pictures right away. It took me a couple months before I felt comfortable enough – knowing the environment, knowing the women – to start photographing them. Once on assignment, I saw three trans women walking down the street and I thought do I say something? I hesitated. Do I say something or do I go up to them or do I let it go? But I decided to approach them and in that moment I met Tamara – she’s one of the main people I have photographed in the series [A light inside http://www.daniellevillasana.com/light-inside]. I explained who I was and what I was doing and she said “Sure here’s my phone number you can call me” and I said ‘Cool, would it be alright if I came over to your house one day?’ and she was like ‘Sure’. So I met her for lunch and we talked about the situation and what it’s like for her, and then from that point she let me come to her house and there I met more women. I lived in the same neighborhood for six months, so I really became known in the community.


It’s a really intense environment. There’s a lot of jealousy and inner fighting, but there’s also a lot of support and family. People would get together and cook, and by the end of it people would be fighting, but then a couple hours later they’d be fine again and laughing. So it’s a very highly charged environment. Everything is extremely saturated and concentrated especially because in that community about 100 women live within 10 city blocks of each other.

They live together, they work together and I was a part of that.

There’s a lot of drugs, there’s a lot of violence, from partners, from family members, from police. Seeing that on a day-to-day level, eventually did make me feel very tired. Because I lived in the same neighborhood, even when I was at home I was essentially working. There was never a moment where I could take a breath or be away, and if I was away from it I was working because I was on other assignments, so I was just constantly going.

Tamara, right, does a line of cocaine with a friend.

Also forming close relationships with people sometimes put a strain on me because I felt like Tamara and a couple other women looked to me for answers. I can do my best to help and provide them with resources – I’ve helped Tamara a few times with medical bills and stuff like that – but  I don’t have the sort of power to make changes immediately.

I can only try to raise awareness through the work I’m doing to hopefully bring about change.

I think after documenting Piojo, I really needed a break. I met Piojo at the end of January and she died at the end of March. From January to March I was with her almost every single day. That’s the way the health system works in Peru – unless a family member is there that person doesn’t get what they need. You have to buy everything. Even the cotton ball that they put the rubbing alcohol on before they prick you. Piojo didn’t have any family– she had a surrogate family but had been estranged from them for 10 years and they had only recently come back into her life after hearing she was ill.. She had a couple of friends but it was hard for them to be there everday.

At 5 a.m. on March 29, Piojo passed away. Her mother, who is shown in one of the few photos Piojo had of her, also died from Tuberculosis when Piojo was 4 years old.When Piojo died, I had been documenting the community for almost two years at that point and I had lived with them for half a year, I had seen death on a personal level and I just needed a break. At the same time Piojo was sick there was another woman in the hospital who I was photographing and visiting  but thankfully her mother from Colombia flew to Peru and was there by her side, so I didn’t have also have to be a caretaker.

Tamara's bed in the sixth of five rooms she has lived in since I met her nearly two years ago. Having to quickly leave where they live is a common occurrence for reasons such as the inability to pay rent, being caught with drugs or alcohol in their rooms or simply because they choose to move instead of paying their incurred debts.

For the technical aspect of it, photographically speaking I guess it was difficult on a few levels. One would be how do you document a whole community? The violence, the drugs the abandonment, the sex work. How do you get everything? It did take a long time. A lot of things happen so fast – the violence on the street, it happens in a second and if you’re not there you miss it. Same thing with photographing someone’s health and sickness. It was a project that took time, so photographically it wasn’t something that was going to be quick.

How do you photograph an entire community, and this is something I’m still working on. How do you keep your photographs interesting, how do you make sure that all of your pictures are not looking the same. I had some guidance from mentors who would look at my work periodically and say ‘Hey, I feel like you’re shooting everything from the same distance, try to get further away, or in your portrait do this…’ and then technically I got robbed once in the neighbourhood of my phone and then once in Lima in a different neighbourhood of my camera. Suddenly photographing on the street at night became that much scarier for me, so I actually started avoiding that. Even being in the neighbourhood I started feeling not as safe, so there was the security side of it as well.

Police officers follow a transwoman before arresting her during a nightly police raid.

Photographing in hospitals is always a challenge because in Peru if you want to photograph in hospitals, you have to get consent and by the time you would even get an answer it would most likely be “no”. I decided to just do it anyway, because one: I’m not going to name the hospital and two: because it isn’t about the hospital it’s about the person.

So I decided to just take photos discreetly.

Most of the pictures you see in the hospital, I had to do really discreetly and after a while I felt like a ninja. I’d be in the emergency ward and I had to figure out who’s looking, and I’d take out my camera really quickly and I’d have to compose the shot before I even took out my camera, and figure out the settings and do the autofocus dial before I would even take the camera out. By the time Piojo was in her own private room and the doctors knew me, I could take pictures more comfortably, but in the emergency room it was like being a ninja with the camera!

E: How have your images given agency to the transgender women of Peru?

D: I would say my relationship with them more than anything has probably been the most positive thing for all of us. I think probably my relationship with them and sitting down with them and doing interviews, especially if something happened, if someone had been hurt by a police officer, I could interview them and they could tell me about it and perhaps they felt some sort of vindication, or at least felt like,

‘Somebody is listening to my story and cares about it’.

On a certain level I think they were aware of what I was doing and why and I know that they’re appreciative. They’d start calling me ‘madre’ which is Mom, and I became very very close to them, so I think that they appreciated that I was there because I wanted to somehow through my photography, fight for them.

After resisting sexual relations with a client without a condom, Tamara was injured with a broken glass that he threw at her face. "You have to be careful with clients because they're not clients, they are bad men that can cheat you, that can take you somewhere. They treat you bad, they beat you, they rob youÉI have suffered through that a few times," said Tamara in a previous interview.

E: Do you have hope for reforms for the transgender people of Peru?

D: I do, of course I have hopes. There’s a big group of transgender women in Peru who are activists and they are working really hard to change the laws, get a gender identity law. They’re working really hard and I would say that they are making progress. Peru is still extremely far behind most countries in Latin America with respect to transgender rights. Will it eventually happen? Absolutely. The question is how long will it take, and it will probably take a while. Even if there are laws, is that going to change society’s viewpoints from one night to the next? No, not at all. Peru is extremely conservative and very religious. The community speaks out against gay and lesbian families and transgender people all the time.

Male chauvinism is very high and there’s skyrocketing rates of violence against women.

Do I see this being an issue for a long time? Absolutely, but is there progress being made? Yes. Also what I hope is at least in the health sector people are starting to understand that they have to address what is going on with the health of transgender women because death is so common. It’s crazy. So, I’m starting to see a waking up in the health sector – at least with a few people [saying] “Hey, we need to do something, people are dying from HIV every other week, but it’s slow, and moving at the rate of molasses.”

E: What do you think about the future of photojournalism?

D: Most of us have assignment work, whether it’s editorial or for NGOs or commercial work. This is the work that pays the bills. Then the other side of that would be the personal projects, usually long form storytelling that people do because they want to do them. So they spend their own money on it, or get a grant to do it and then the search for publishing comes after. Long form storytelling always comes with a personal initiative to do it. Especially because the industry doesn’t really support long form storytelling like it used to.

Honestly I think that the long form storytelling has to come from the photographers themselves and then try to publish it later.

As long as photographers still have an interest in documentary storytelling then I believe that it will always be there. The industry is so multifaceted, there’s breaking news, there’s reportage, there’s entertainment aspects, so I think it’s hard to say that it would be only one thing, but of course the industry values that work [long form storytelling] because it’s important and goes deeper than breaking news.  I would say the industry values that- but maybe can’t support it the way it used to. So, that work is funded through grants and published after the photographer has already completed the work– as opposed to being commissioned beforehand.

E: You have an involvement with the #everdaylatinamerica tag on Instagram – what do you think of the role of Instagram within photojournalism?

D: I love social media! I think that it’s a really incredible tool that we can use to spread awareness about issues in a way that a newspaper or an online news site can not. For one – it’s free and most people have it. I think what’s so cool about Instagram is it gives a photographer the ability to take the picture, edit and publish all within the same platform – so YOU have the control, completely. So the everyday movement was started by @Everydayafrica and that spurred this global movement. I think that it motivated people because it showed how you can use social media to show a different side to what we normally see in the traditional media. The Everyday Project’s mission is to break stereotypes in traditional media. What’s so appealing about the project is the photographers don’t show what people see in the news. It’s the everyday – it’s what happens everyday.

What I appreciate about the Everyday movement is that it shows a different side to the headlines. It says ‘Hey Africa’s not just war, poverty and famine’, that’s just one tiny little part of it but the everyday is happening and it’s beautiful and people are going to school, and have money and resources etc. I started Everyday Latin America with three other friends and colleagues and it’s been very rewarding. What I also love about Instagram is the community aspect, because you connect with people you don’t know. You connect with someone on Instagram and they live halfway across the world but you follow each other, perhaps comment on each other’s stuff, and a year later you happen to meet in person. So there’s also the added benefit of building a community. #EverydayLatinAmerica is a group of 24 plus photographers and even though most of them I’ve never met face-to-face, I’m very close with them because we’re part of this community together. So social media, to me, is amazing in many ways and I think that maybe social media may be the future of photojournalism as we move away from physical newspapers, and start to consume our news more digitally. I think that social media is already playing a huge role in how we produce and consume the media.

E: Can you tell me a bit about what you’re working on in Nigeria at the moment?

D: I am documenting the aftermath of the Boko Haram violence and insurgency in north eastern Nigeria, with a focus on women, but also trying to photograph the larger context of it. It’s challenging for many reasons.

People in Michika, a town formerly occupied by Boko Haram, wait for a food distribution. Due to the fact that people have missed a farming season due to violence, there is scarcity of food.

E: How did you get started photographing in Nigeria?

Fatima Mohammad, 14, was kidnapped from Baga to the Sambisa Forest by Boko Haram and forced to marry an insurgent. She lived in the forest for more than one year where food was scarce and she was often tied up and raped by her husband and other insurgents. After hearing that her husband was killed, she escaped and later remarried a man she met in an IDP camp in Maiduguri where she now lives.D: I happened to read an article in March last year (2015) about how the majority of women in a group of around 300 that the Nigerian army had rescued from Boko Haram were visibly pregnant. That was really alarming to me, so I started researching about it a lot and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I felt compelled to document what was happening and how women were recovering from these gruesome experiences.  I was really honest with myself and asked myself a lot of questions about my intentions and why I should document this, and from my research I noticed actually very little people were covering the long-term effects of Boko Haram violence. Boko Haram is the world’s deadliest terrorist group, but it’s really not receiving very much media attention. There was a period where it was constantly in the news because of the Chibok girls – the nearly 300 school girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014- but they were not the only girls who were kidnapped. Lots of women have been kidnapped. So, as I started looking at the situation in Nigeria and what stories were being produced

I started noticing that there wasn’t a lot of coverage, which was mostly likely due to the fact that the violence is no longer at it’s height.

I can count the number of people working on this issue long-term and they are all doing extremely powerful and impactful work but there still isn’t enough coverage even with all of us working on the issue. I think it was the right decision to focus on this issue, but it’s definitely challenging in ways I was not expecting. I will continue to try and document the aftermath of what’s happening and keep raising awareness that these people who have suffered violence, especially women – they’re still dealing with consequences. Nigeria has fought back a lot and is regaining a lot of territory but it doesn’t mean that the issues that women and communities are dealing with are just going to go away.

A woman walks by an abandoned tank left by Boko Haram on the road to Michika, a town formerly occupied by the insurgents in northern Nigeria's Adamawa State.
Images courtesy of the artist www.daniellevillasana.com

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