Staying Emotionally and Mentally Strong Is Important as a Photographer, Take Breaks When You Need It

As a high school senior, in lieu of going to college, I decided to travel. With money earned through various jobs, over the next four years, I would travel to more than 30 countries, with my camera as a window into different societies and cultures. As a citizen of one of the world’s richest countries, I was disturbed by the lack of access to education, collapsing infrastructures, and limited technologies in many of the places I saw. Shocked by the disparity, I continuously asked myself, “What will make a difference?” After meeting a photojournalist in Ghana, I realized photographs can expose injustice in a way that humanizes suffering and provokes positive action by compelling people to respond. After years of working, saving, and exploring, I knew I wanted to be a photojournalist. To achieve this goal, I decided to pursue a university education to learn about the world in a different way. I returned home in 2009 to pursue a dual degree in photojournalism and Spanish in Austin at The University of Texas.

As a student I pursued opportunities that not only honed my technical skills through professional experience but also shaped my ethical practices and beliefs. To this day I strive to live and work by the advice of one of my college professors and now my mentor, Donna De Cesare: “You are a human being first and a journalist second.” This belief is most evident in my years-long work with transwomen in Lima, Peru, where I developed close relationships built on trust, allowing me to photograph sensitive subject matter such as death, violence, and substance abuse. This ultimately helped me show a more accurate picture of what trans women face due to societal discrimination and stigmatization. My work in Lima was my first long-term project and it taught me a lot about storytelling. Because ethics and trust are the most important things to me, I spent the first few months simply getting to know the women I would photograph and the neighborhood where they lived and worked. I was always clear about who I was and my intentions, but I wanted to develop a two-way relationship before documenting their lives. Eventually, they opened their doors to me, and because of so much time invested, my foundation and relationship with these women are still incredibly strong.

Working on this project was also the first time I encountered really difficult situations, such as death. The first transwoman I started photographing, Tamara, passed away this year and it was a deeply painful experience. We had grown so close and even called each other “hermana,” or sister. While it felt strange to photograph this part of her life, I knew that I had to in order to show the extent of the life-threatening consequences of transphobia. Sadly, many transwomen share a similar fate throughout Latin America, with most not living beyond 35. I continue to work on this project, but it was necessary to distance myself a bit from it because it was becoming emotionally overwhelming. It’s important to be emotionally and mentally strong as a photographer documenting difficult stories, so when you feel that you need a break, take it.

I have since continued to focus on stories about human rights issues, women, identity, and health, and am currently based in Istanbul. While navigating the photojournalism industry is incredibly difficult, especially as a freelancer, there are some lessons I’ve learned along the way that has helped me tremendously. Make friends. You will have a thousand downs and hundreds of ups; it’s your friends who will help you through the hard times and be there to celebrate with you through the good times. Without the support of friends and family, this profession would be impossible. Be interested. Study and be inspired by photographers and their work, get involved with group projects, start an initiative. This profession is only as rich as you make it. Lastly, don’t give up. You will have thousands of lows and know that you’re not the only one. I try to see the low moments as the times that push me, that makes me re-examine myself and my work, that makes me say “I can do this.” The more you get through the hard times, the easier it gets. Believe in yourself and your love for people and humanity and your passion for sharing that with others. If you can feel the love for what you do and believe in that love, you’ll survive even the darkest hours.

Danielle Villasana is an independent photojournalist whose documentary work focuses on women, identity, human rights, and health. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, PRI’s The World, PBS News, ABC News, News Deeply, and Al Jazeera. She is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey, and contributes to Redux.

You can follow Villasana and her work on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and stay updated on her latest projects on her website at daniellevillasana.com.

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