Danielle Villasana

Interview by Svetlana Bahchevanova

Danielle Villasana is an independent photojournalist whose documentary work focuses on human rights, women, identity, displacement, and health across the world. She’s based in Istanbul and contributes to Redux. Danielle won the 2015 Magnum Foundation's Inge Morath Award, is an alumna of the Eddie Adams Workshop, a past attendant of the New York Times Portfolio Review, was selected for the 2015-2016 Emerging Talent Roster at Getty Images Reportage, and is an IWMF fellow. Danielle is a member of The Everyday Project's community team where she writes frequently for Re-Picture. She recently helped build The Native and Everyday Projects mentorship program, which aims to nourish emerging photographers from underrepresented regions worldwide.

Your new book is dedicated to Tamara. Who is she and how did you come to know her? 

I was on assignment when I met Tamara walking with two friends on a street of downtown Lima in 2013. I approached them, explaining who I was and my work. I asked them if it would be alright to contact them later to talk to more and they gave me their numbers. Tamara was the only person who answered my call and we met for lunch the following day where I explained my work, my intentions and my goals. She agreed to letting me come to her house to photograph and it all just started flowing naturally from there. I was immediately drawn to Tamara’s outgoing personality, she was very funny and very open, easy-going and generous. Over the course of the following years, we grew very close and even called each other “hermana,” or sister. She was very dear to me. 

Like the majority of trans women in Peru, Tamara was a sex worker, which is oftentimes unstable, unpleasant and dangerous work. Due to stigmatization and ostracization from Peruvian society, employment and education options for trans women are very limited. Tamara often talked about the discomfort and dangers of this work and would get frustrated and depressed a lot because she couldn’t find other jobs despite trying to find them. Like many women, after trying time and time again—and continuously subjecting herself to the discomfort of discrimination—she remained in sex work. Sex work had a big effect on her daily life as it often meant late nights, being exposed to violence, disease and instability, and often using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for the harsh living conditions she was exposed to and her low self-esteem. She had a strong relationship with her mom and they were best friends. It’s fairly unusual for trans women to have support from family members, but I believe Evila, Tamara’s mom, was supportive of Tamara because she is sensitive to issues of sexual orientation and identity. Other than Tamara’s mom, she wasn’t very close to many other people, though she would sometimes spend time with friends from the neighborhood where she grew up. Like most trans women living in downtown Lima, Tamara stuck to the neighborhood and if she did wander outside of it, she’d often go accompanied.

From the time I met Tamara, she would often talk about how she wasn’t going to live past 30 because society treats her as less than human. It was particularly painful when shortly after her 30th birthday she passed away from complications with HIV and Tuberculosis. HIV is a huge issue among trans women in Peru—30% are infected with HIV, which, according to a study by Peru’s Cayetano University, is directly linked to “high rates of sex work and drug abuse, which are themselves linked to extreme marginalization and lack of other options for survival.” This issue is also widespread throughout the region. Another issue is the lack of education and outreach among social workers to help trans women understand how HIV works and to get tested. Furthermore, many trans women wait until the last minute to seek treatment because they are scared of the discrimination that is so rampant in the healthcare sector. I photographed another trans woman, Piojo, who passed away from HIV and Tuberculosis in 2015 and the situation was very similar for her: the fear of discrimination as a factor for not seeking help sooner, the lack of understanding about how the diseases work, the lack of both emotional and financial support from family members, etc. Tamara had gotten on HIV medication in mid-2015 and a couple months later on Tuberculosis medication. But, at some point she defaulted on her Tuberculosis medication. I moved from Lima in December 2015. When I visited her a couple times in 2016, and whenever we talked on social media, she would tell me that she was still taking her medication. But, that turned out to not be the case. The last time I saw Tamara was in November of 2016 and her 30th birthday was on December 23, 2016. She passed away on January 11, 2017. I found out the evening after her passing and was on a flight to Lima from New York the next morning. 
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, and they rob you. I have suffered through that a few times," said Tamara in an interview.

How long did you work on this project and what was your approach to get so close to this group of transwomen? How did you gain their trust?

In college I started a multimedia project in 2012 on LGBTQ families in Texas. I documented four different families and one of those families was about the life of a transgender woman, Nikki Araguz. She really opened up my eyes to what it means to be transgender and the unique challenges the trans community faces. I was very inspired by Nikki and her story. The following summer I received a grant from my university and I went to Argentina, which at that time in 2012 had just passed the world’s most progressive set of gender identity laws. I followed the lives of three trans people and they opened up my eyes and inspired me even more. So, for my last semester as a college student I decided to study abroad in Peru. As I prepared to move there, I began wondering what the situation was like for trans people in Peru. I started researching beforehand and was completely shocked by what I read. By the time I got to Lima I knew I wanted to understand the trans community there. One evening as I was leaving the newspaper where I was interning, a colleague offered to take me to the neighborhood where many trans women work and live. That night I saw a woman get arrested and it was a shocking moment because I realized what I had read online and what I had researched was true. From that night forward, I kept going back to the community, but it took about three months before I started taking pictures because I really wanted to get to know them first and I wanted them to get to know me. I lived in Peru for about three years and in doing this work I learned that developing intimacy with the people you photograph is really important—and it’s something that will happen naturally if you put in the time and care and have the right intentions. At one point I moved to the same neighborhood and simply enjoyed spending time with them. 
Sandrelli, right, watches her landlord's daughter play with a dog as she waits to go to work in Lima, Peru.

The book was just release when another of the people you photographed died very young. What is the life of transwomen in Peru brings them to a early death?

Most trans women in Latin America do not survive past 35 and Latin America leads the world in trans homicides (80% occur here.) This is a seriously grotesque and disturbing human rights issue and yet governments are not doing enough to address it. Very few countries in Latin America have legal protections in place for trans communities—and for that matter, very few countries around the world. The human rights violations perpetrated against trans women throughout Latin America are the result of toxic societal forces. The region’s highly machismo, conservative, religious and transphobic culture ostracizes and stigmatizes them, posing a serious threat to their health, social security, life expectancy and employment prospects. With few options or economic support, the majority fall into prostitution. As trans sex workers, they’re targets of disease, violence and sexual and substance abuse. Without legal protections, many cases of violence and murder go undocumented. Sadly, that’s the case with most regions around the world. Through years of documenting trans women, I’ve realized that an early death is more common than a long life. 

Piojo is baptized by a priest in the emergency ward of a hospital in downtown Lima.

How this project developed to a book format?

A few years back I made a book dummy for a portfolio review but I never imagined that the project would make a “real” book one day. However, when I considered applying for the FotoEvidence Book Award, making a book began to make a lot of sense because I realized it was the best way to honor these women and to give back to them. My main objective is to use the book as an educational tool and that goal has guided all the design elements. The book’s cover is a pliable soft cover and the pages are not in the traditional landscape format. I want people who are not familiar with trans issues or photojournalism to feel like it’s a book they can understand. I didn’t want to create a heavy, coffee-table book—I want the book to be passed between many hands and thrown into briefcases and backpacks. I want the book to feel accessible, inviting, and relatable. That being said, the design is well balanced with context, information, and rich content. The result is like a cross between a textbook and a magazine, which I absolutely love. Also, working with an amazing all woman team has been so rewarding. The editor Régina Monfort really helped the work reach new depths and the designer Melike Tascioglu immediately knew what I envisioned and worked with me until we reached that (and of course, adding in her own ideas, which were so exciting—like the hologram letters on the cover, for example!) Also, I’m so grateful that the book’s essays are also written by women: the first is written by Leyla Huerta, a prominent trans activist in Peru and the second by Ximena Salazar, a Peruvian anthropologist who has studied LGBTQIA issues for years at Peru’s Cayetano Heredia University. 

Over 200 copies from A Light Inside will be donated by you and FotoEvidence for educational purpose to different organizations in Peru. What is your plan to influence changes in the Peruvian society with this work?

I’m partnering with various organizations in Lima to bring educational campaigns to institutions such as hospitals, universities, police forces, and legislative bodies in order to raise awareness about the issues trans women face in Peru. We will distribute the book for free, which is written in both Spanish and English. Our aim is to educate sectors that are often ignorant of the abuse against trans women due to institutional prejudice and lack of understanding. While the media in Peru continue to paint trans women in a negative light, this book will show their personal lives with friends, family, and partners as well as the abuse by law enforcement and the discomforts and dangers of sex work. Media focus on the sensational obscures the humanity of trans women and fuels society’s misunderstanding and judgement. I truly hope that “A Light Inside” will counter that, which is why distributing the book free-of-charge through educational campaigns is an important part of the process. Getting people to listen in the first place is sometimes the hardest part. I hope that this book, paired with our educational campaigns, can help create pathways for empathy and compassion towards the trans community and ultimately, positive changes for them.
Danuska, left, holds hands with her friend as she passess by on her way to work.