Although farming and volunteering across Europe was riddled with discovery, it was not until I took a ferry from Spain to Morocco that the voyage truly began. In Africa, I experienced very different lifestyles from the ones I witnessed in European countries. On a budget of little more than $20 a day, I ate, slept and commuted like the locals. I was invited into homes where I ate traditional meals, made friends and discussed societal issues.
Traveling in North and West Africa, I tapped into my adventurous side. I walked for four days in the desert with Tuareg nomads, sailed on a cargo pinasse to Timbuktu, spent a night in an iron ore cart on the world's longest, dustiest as well as slowest train and ventured through a previously war-torn country riddled with police checkpoints. As a citizen of one of the world's richest countries and as a traveler in some of the poorest, I was disturbed by the disparity between our standards of living.
I realized photographs can expose human rights abuses and natural disasters in a way that humanizes suffering and provokes positive action by compelling people to respond. So after years of working, saving and exploring, I decided I wanted to be a photojournalist. In order to achieve this goal, I knew I needed a university education to teach me about the world in a different way. After returning home, I began working as a waitress while taking classes at Austin Community College where I could afford the tuition. A year later, I enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin (UT).
Pursuing a formal education has granted me opportunities I would not have had as a seasoned traveler. Encouraged by experiences inside and outside of the classroom, I found outlets where I can utilize my camera to communicate. As a staff photographer and associate photo editor of The Daily Texan, UTâ��s award-winning student newspaper, I have photographed everything from lectures to sporting events to festivals and protests. In the fall of 2010, I worked as a photography intern at the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, where I was fortunate to learn from professionals and witness firsthand the workings of a major publication. Last summer, after months of fundraising and co-directing media relations as a volunteer for a UT student-led cancer awareness nonprofit, I challenged my own physical and emotional stamina by participating in a 4,500-mile bicycle trek to Alaska, naturally with my camera strapped to the handlebars.
The experiences I gained from class work, assignments and advocating for cancer patients helped me respectfully navigate through the fragile situations of survivors last fall as I photographed the devastation in Bastrop caused by the worst wildfire in Texas history. Iâ��m currently working on a multimedia piece about a family with four adopted, special needs children that lost not only their home and possessions in the wildfire, but also their eight-year-old son after he was sent away for attempting to kill his mother. Despite his severe psychiatric illness, the family remained hopeful that he would be able to return in good health and live with them in their newly built home. A few weeks ago, I documented his homecoming and the tender moment was a true testament to the family's love, strength and resilience. Although his return was short-lived, his family continues to foster hope for his recovery.
These moments and experiences reaffirm my conviction that I will continue forging a path to reach my goal of spreading hope and awareness by providing conduits for people's untold stories.
*All images are property of Danielle Villasana*