“Women capturing the world”: an interview with Danielle Villasana

Documenting the migration of trans women from Central and South America


In the last issue of Opinio Juris- Law and Politics Review[1], I introduced the story of Kataleya Nativi Baca, a trans woman from San Pedro Sula whose migration journey was documented on the National Geographic February 2021 issue[2]. Danielle Villasana is the photojournalist who documented Kataleya’s migration journey from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Tijuana, Mexico, where she is still waiting for her asylum application to be processed. Danielle is a National Geographic Explorer; amidst her many projects she is a Community Team member of The Everyday Projects[3], co-founded We, Women[4], and is part of collectives of women photographers like Women Photograph[5] and Ayün Fotógrafas[6], where Latin America features prominently.  She virtually sat down to chat with me about her latest work, migration, and representation.

How did you end up covering the story of Kataleya, Alexa, and trans women migrating to the United States in general?

I have been focusing on communities of trans women throughout Latin America since 2012, in fact even started a project in Texas around the same year, on LGBTQIA families. It’s a topic I have been covering for a really long time, almost a decade. I had been documenting a community in Lima, Perù, for about three years and focusing a lot on the consequences of the fact that transphobia relegates trans women to sex work, what happens to their lives as a result of that, and the life threatening challenges they face because of discrimination. As I reflected further on the issue, I was drawn to Central America because, while trans women face similar challenges as other women throughout the region, in Central America they’re more vulnerable, for example, because of the endemic violence due to gangs or impunity in terms of police abuse. Furthermore, because in Central America  migration is such an integral part of existence, it is a solution that many trans women look to, in order to seek better lives for themselves, in terms of employment, stability, and human rights. I wanted to focus on that issue more in depth, so, in 2016, I started very slowly researching it. I was in the region for different assignments but didn’t really start photographing in depth until 2018 when I was in Honduras on an International Women’s Media Foundation grant. I met Alexa when she was working one night; shared my contact information, who I was, what I was doing. She is the person I have documented most in depth in Honduras, whereas I met Kataleya in 2018 but didn’t start photographing her until 2019, along her migration journey and then in Tijuana. Actually the first images I photographed of Kataleya were the night her brother had beat her up.

Can you tell me a little bit about The Everyday Projects[7] and how did the reporting for National Geographic started?

I have been a community team member of The Everyday Projects since 2016 and before that, in 2014, three other people and I helped co-found Everyday Latin America, on Instagram. We were approached by Jennifer Samuel who is on the board of The Everyday Projects and a photo-editor at National Geographic, to pitch an idea centering women. In 2020, National Geographic was focused on publishing a majority of stories by women about women, as it was the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote in the United States. We pitched the idea: looking at the impact of migration of women worldwide. I took the lead of the project and reached out to probably twenty women of The Everyday Projects community, asked for pitches and of course clarified that I didn’t know if this was actually going to work out. Simultaneously, I worked closely with Jennifer Samuel to pick a balanced combination of issues, regions and storytellers. A huge priority of The Everyday Projects is to uplift underrepresented photographers themselves and to strive for inclusivity and diversity in terms of insider and outsider perspectives, gender, race, and beyond. At the same time I also applied for a grant to the National Geographic Society and was lucky enough to get it. The grant also included educational initiatives, which we are focusing on, now that the story has been published. The educational outreach, created in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center, will be the next phase of this project.

It is so inspiring to see so many women involved in such different projects from all around the world and hearing voices from people that you don’t necessarily get to hear a lot…

Yes, exactly. I was really proud of the fact that out of the eight women, six were covering issues in their own communities and in terms of myself and Nicole [Sobecki, a/n] we were focusing on issues that we have been dedicated to for years. And, the majority of the photographers on our team are women of colour.

You are part of many projects that have women or non-binary people at the center, like We, Women, Ayün Fotografas and Women Photograph. How does your identity influence your work? If it does…

It definitely does. As a woman of colour myself and as someone who has focused for nearly a decade on an issue that is often stereotyped, I feel very passionately both about filling the gaps in mainstream media as well as increasing diversity and inclusivity within the industry. The visual media industry has been dominated for decades by a homogenous group of storytellers, which is limiting. When we look at the world through a very narrow scope, we only see the world through one perspective. I believe that a really important way of diversifying the media is to diversify the storytellers. As a woman myself, I’m drawn to women’s issues, which inevitably intersects with many others.  As someone who chose photojournalism as my tool to hopefully create positive impact,  I tend to focus on places and communities where I think that impact might have the most weight. I want to do everything I possibly can to continue to help our industry progress to a place where it should be.

Talking about responsibility: we have a huge moral obligation in terms of perpetrating a narrative about migration and LGBTQI+ issue. How do you think we should change the terminology and the representation in mainstream media?

My perspective as a photographer, who tells stories through pictures, is that photographing the everyday, or the quiet moments that are often not sensationalistic enough for the media, is very powerful. That doesn’t mean that I avoid or ignore issues that people face. I don’t want to ignore that there are human rights injustices and that people truly face life-threatening situations, but I think that by balancing that with images of everyday life, images of joy, of community, of family, is what helps readers or viewers relate and offers a connection. If we can help people relate to others who are going through extreme challenges, that perhaps the viewers will never face, it will help them feel more invested, or more angry. I think that when we sensationalise others and issues, it makes it that much easier for a viewer or a reader to be like: “There is nothing I can do about that! It’s so far removed from who I am, where I am, and my ability to do anything. ‘Poor’ people!” It’s easy to dismiss the people and the issue.
In regards to terminology, there is plenty of archaic language that is still being used. For example, I’ve seen immigration forms that still refer to immigrants as “aliens.”. This type of language is really othering.

I thought about this question because the other day I was tutoring a kid who has spent a year in Australia with his family and I referred in passing to “immigration” and he looked at me sort of puzzled and said “we did not emigrate! We weren’t fleeing from a war!” That really got me thinking about how we talk about migrations and how we represent this issue..

Yes, exactly. Depending on your race, how privileged your economic situation is, and other factors, when you “move” to another country you’re not considered a migrant, but rather, an “expat.” Language can also be really classist.

What is the process of getting a person to participate in a project, especially one like this where your life is very exposed?

First and foremost is trust, which is something that is worked at continuously. The elements of building trust are transparency and communication. I am always very upfront about who I am, what I am doing, what my intentions are, and where the images might potentially end up. I have very involved conversations with people where I break down how journalism works, and exactly what it means to give consent. I explain the entire range of what could potentially happen with examples. I spend a lot of time with people and communities, especially with my work in Lima because I lived in Peru for three years. For example, at one point I lived in the same neighbourhood as the women I was photographing and spent a lot of time with them, sometimes without photographing. It’s also important to know when to put the camera down to simply share moments with people. It’s important to have a line of communication constantly open and ensure people that they don’t have to say yes to being photographed. I have had instances, while photographing groups of women, where maybe one or two didn’t want to be photographed so I made sure I worked around them. Or maybe a woman at first gives consent then says no to particular images, and that is also totally fine.
Especially with communities that have been continuously let down by society, it can be challenging to establish a trusting relationship, and it’s important to be patient and understanding. It’s their time and their story, not mine.

Danielle Villasana is a photojournalist whose documentary work focuses on human rights, women, and identity. Danielle is a Magnum Foundation awardee, an alumna of the Eddie Adams Workshop, and an International Women’s Media Foundation fellow. Danielle strongly believes in the pairing of photography, education, and community development. She’s a Community Team member of The Everyday Projects and a board member of the Authority Collective.

Do you have a process of choosing what to show or what not to show? Does the person, in this case Alexa or Kataleya, have any saying in what she wants to edit?

As a photographer, I try to document everything I possibly can, and the selection comes in the editing process. When making a selection, I always try to keep in mind context: where am I publishing? Is this photograph going to be published just by itself or with other images? That is also really important because, again, I don’t want to ignore truths, or realities of what people face, but I don’t  want to only show a side that can be sensationalised. Furthermore, as a person that submits work for grants and contests, I often ask myself: “Would I feel comfortable if the organization showed, for example, just this one picture?”. In terms of the editing process, I have sat down with Alexa and other women I have photographed in San Pedro Sula. I printed hundreds of photos and we all looked at them together, and Alexa loved it—she looked through all of them, giving her opinion and thoughts. In reality, not everyone I photograph is going to be invested in what I’m doing,  whereas others are. Alexa and Kataleya, for example, are people who care very much about what I am doing, so we are often in conversation about their stories. For example, before Kataleya’s story was published on National Geographic’s Instagram story, we watched the video together and stressed for probably the hundredth time that their account has more than 140 million followers. Whenever possible, continued consent is really important.

You did part of the migration journey with Kataleya and Alexa, right?

Yes. I wasn’t with Kataleya on her entire migration journey but I photographed her from San Pedro Sula to Tapachula, on the southern border of Mexico, in Guatemala. Then, when she left Tapachula to Tijuana, I was also documenting that part of her journey.

On that bus! I mean the description of the bus that you all took from Tapachula to Tijuana is really something…

Yeah, that was a fun three days. Kataleya is so funny, though, she said: “next time I’m taking a plane”.
Then I went back last year to photograph what Katalayea is going through, and also photographed Alexa’s first leg of her third migration attempt while she was temporarily living in Tapachula.

Thanks to Donal Trump, there have been new policies concerning immigration, namely the infamous “remain in Mexico” policy, and, as a result, people like Kataleya have to wait in Mexico to have their application processed instead of within the United States borders. What are the dangers that people face, especially trans women, when they are asked to “wait in Mexico”?

 The “remain in Mexico” policy is a source of great instability for all migrants because it assumes that people have the resources to stay put and are safe while waiting. A lot of times migrants cannot find employment where they are. When you are in the United States and you have a sponsor, waiting for a green card is completely different than being left to survive in a country that is not even your destination country. It puts people in really difficult situations. For someone who already faces challenges with securing employment opportunities because of transphobia, it makes it that much harder. For Kataleya, who has never engaged in sex work, it’s really difficult for her to find secure, stable, employment. In fact she hasn’t been able to do that in Mexico. She is dealing with xenophobia as well as transphobia and this combination makes it nearly impossible to find a job. She has lived in numerous shelters inTijuana, and has faced issues in every single one of them: she was robbed in one, beat up in another. Shelters are meant to be temporary living situations, not permanent. Not to mention that migrants travelling through Mexico are only given a certain amount of time to stay in the country before they may have to apply for refugee status. And, for many people, Mexico is not that much safer for them than the countries they fled. In Katalaeya’s case she has faced violence and she has feared for her life both in her home country and in Mexico. Waiting would be somewhat bearable if it was for one or two months—it’s tough, but you can see an end. With the “remain in Mexico” policy and now with the borders still being closed, it’s nearly impossible. Even for someone like Kataleya, who is one of the strongest people I know and who is always positive and tries to find the silver lining, this situation has nearly broken her.The policies that the Trump administration put into place are intentionally meant to discourage people from migrating and to encourage people to return to their home countries where they could potentially be harmed or killed, such as in the case of Kataleya.

Latin and Central American countries have, what it seems, a very contradictory approach to LGBTQI+ rights. Argentina has passed one of the most advanced laws on trans rights, while countries like Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and others are quite far behind. From your experience living in the Southern cone and reporting the pass of the identity law with the project “volver a nacer ” what is the relationship between the LGBTQI+ community and the rest of the population?

You explained that really well in terms of this contradiction in Latin America between laws that secure rights for LGBTQIA people and then the way that they are treated in society. For example, Brazil is the leading country for the number of homicides of trans people in the world. Then in Mexico, where same sex marriage is legal in many states, LGBTQIA people are murdered and face constant discrimination. My theory—or maybe I have picked it up doing research—is that the more a marginalized, underrepresented, and stigmatized community is made visible through gaining rights and protection by the law, the more society will pushback; not by everyone of course as as I have met many people who are accepting of the LGBTQIA people, but there are still large sectors of society that are very transphobic and homophobic due to their conservative, religious views. Latin America is complex and layered, but the visibility of certain communities does seem to go through a “two steps forward, one step back” type of process. While Latin America leads the world in homicides of trans people at 80%, this statistic does make me wonder, having photographed communities of LGBTQIA people in more closed societies, like in East Africa and India: is this statistic so high because LGBTQIA people are more visible in Latin America?
Hopefully over time this “two step forward, one step back” process will change and ultimately equate to an overall net gain of securing human rights for this community.

How are Alexa and Kataleya doing?

Alexa is good, we have been messaging back and forth recently because she was on the road. She finally left Tuxtla Gutiérrez in Chiapas, southern Mexico, to head towards Mexico City.  Unlike Kataleya, Alexa is travelling undocumented throughout Mexico. This puts her in a very vulnerable situation but thankfully, she’s traveling with her boyfriend, so she is not alone. She has made it to Mexico City, which is good because when she was on the road and we were messaging she was sending me videos of her in the middle of nowhere, completely dark with only one little fire going, telling me that they were assaulting people on “la bestia”[8]. But she made it, and from Mexico City it’s just one more leg before the border with the United States. Alexa is such a fighter, she does not give up and she is very confident, her energy just pulls you in. She is incredible. Both her and Kataleya are incredible people.
Kataleya is still waiting, there is no answer, not a glimmer of what might happen for her. The thought of her having to wait another year in Tijuana just makes me sick, and if I feel like this I can’t even imagine how she withstands everything that she has had to go through.


[1] Landi, M. “Gendering the pandemic: storie di vita trans tra America latina e confini”, Opinio Juris- Law and Politics Review, March 3rd 2021, https://www.opiniojuris.it/gendering-the-pandemic-storie-di-vita-trans-tra-america-latina-e-confini/
[2] National Geographic, The Everyday Projects, “Meet some of the millions of women who emigrated recently, risking everything”, National Geographic, February 14th 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/meet-some-of-the-millions-of-women-who-migrated-recently-risking-everything-feature
[3] The Everyday Projects, https://www.everydayprojects.org/
[4] We, Women, https://www.wewomenphoto.com/
[5] Women Photograph, https://www.womenphotograph.com/
[6]  Ayün Fotógrafas, https://www.instagram.com/ayunfotografas/?hl=en
[7] The original question asked during the interview cited the EverydayEverywhere Project, which is the name of the Instagram account but not of the actual project, which is just The Everyday Projects. A “branding issue”, as Danielle described it, and a source of embarrassment for me, the fact-checker, who did not fact-check enough.  
[8] Also known as “El tren de la muerte” or “El tren de los desconocidos”, is a network of freight trains used by migrants to cross the length of Mexico and reach the border with the United States.

Foto copertina: Kataleya Nativi Baca does her makeup while waiting outside an NGO in Tapachula, Mexico, her first stop in Mexico as she migrates from her home country of Honduras to the Mexico/U.S. border where she hopes to seek asylum. Kataleya fled Honduras shortly after her brother beat her up, fracturing her collarbone, which contributed to the ongoing discrimination and threats she’d faced for years from both family and society in general.