Photojournalist Carlos Villalon

"Photography has become a way of life to me"

Interview: Nezih Tavlas / November 10, 2021

(Courtesy of Carlos Villalon)

Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?

Carlos Villalon: By 1990 I knew already I wanted to be a photographer but I did not know what type of photography I wanted to do.

While leaving in NY, I took several photography classes at Parsons, the New School of Design, one of these classes was photojournalism. In the summer of 1992, while roaming the streets, shooting portraits of homeless people, I found the ICP uptown, there, they had a Sebastiao Salgado show called An Uncertain Grace, after I saw the exhibition, I was absolutely certain that in my life, I was going to be a photojournalist.

Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?

Carlos Villalon: I have always used Canon Cameras and two fixed lenses a 35 mm f 1.4 and a 50mm f 1.2

I work a lot in humid places like, jungle, so I learned that the best bodies for this type of terrain is the Canon 5D Mark II. I also carry on my bag a Canon 70-200mm f 2.8, just in case.

A Couple of weeks ago, in The Darien gap, I thought that i’d like to carry with me Canon mirrorless, small size and a way better sensor. Easier to protect from bad weather, humidity and mud.

Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?

Carlos Villalon:


Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?

Before an assignment, I try to inform myself about the place I am going, the people who live there, the specific story I’m shooting and all things that are happening on that specific place, I read a lot about it.

In my bag there’s always two camera bodies, three lenses, extra batteries, a camera cleaning kit, battery charger, cards, a note book and a pen.

Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?

Carlos Villalon: Before I start shooting, I talked to people lots, try to understand their situation, make them comfortable about me being there with a camera to show what is there, so people can have an idea of the place I went. From then on I expect people to conform their own ideas related to that specific story.

Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?

Carlos Villalon: Before, because I come from the film generation, used to shoot very few frames, after, I became digital, I shoot way more, other than the people I suppose to photograph, i shoot a lot of landscapes, details, and so on.

Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?

Carlos Villalon: I was in The Darien gap, the border between Colombia and Panama, where thousands of migrants are passing from South America to Central America, towards The USA. Shot for Volkscrant, Holland.

Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?

Carlos Villalon: I have been working, for over a decade, in a place called The Darien gap, the border between Colombia and Panama where thousands of migrants from Africa, South East Asia, The Middle East and The Caribbean cross the jungle, every year, for a week, on foot, in order to reach Central America and from then on, The USA.

A really sad migration story. Because of the pandemic I haven’t been able to go there since 2020. Now, I’m ready to go back.

Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?

Carlos Villalon: I really like some of the photographs I did for another long term projects, my book, Coca The Lost War, published on 2019. When I started to used fixed lenses, not zooms, at this point, i believe I started to achieve my own voice in photography. The project lasted something like 15 years and it had a purpose, I believed, it achieved. That was to inform people about a sacred plant and the failed war on drugs.

Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?

Carlos Villalon: Empathy towards the subjects I photograph.

(All images © Courtesy of Carlos Villalon)

Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?

Carlos Villalon: A photograph is great when it moves people towards a common goal

Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?

Carlos Villalon: A photograph becomes memorable when a solution to a problem is achieved, and in my own case a photograph starts to become memorable, when after years of looking at it, you still like it.

Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?

 Carlos Villalon: Photography has become a way of life to me, something I will keep doing to the end, no matter what the problems with photography are today. What keeps me motivated is to find new stories to tell the audiences.

Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

Carlos Villalon: In 2001 in Afghanistan, some colleagues were murdered on the road that leads from Jalalabad towards Kabul, after the killing of those journalists, of course the road was sealed for all of us. I wanted to get to Kabul, so I hired a local translator and we jump on a public bus to the capital, we made it there in one piece but when we were going back to Jalalabad, our bus was stopped by robbers on the road, I thought I was going to be killed but the driver stopped the robbers from jumping into the bus, i got out of there alive and thought that this was the most stupid thing someone can do.

Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?

Carlos Villalon: To find and shoot my own stories, and being paid, that would be my dream job.

Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?

Carlos Villalon: Empathy and curiosity.

Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?

Carlos Villalon: It is something you just don’t do, in photojournalism.

Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?

Carlos Villalon: Always try to show things and people the way they really are, not to manipulate the truth.

Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?

Carlos Villalon: The role of photojournalism its been always the same, to inform. Nowadays photojournalism is evolving on several ways but to inform is the way it should stay. No, photojournalism is not loosing it’s importance at all, there may be less outlets and money, but if there’s still newspapers and magazines out there, photojournalism won’t loose importance, people really identify news with images.

Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

Carlos Villalon: Shoot, shoot and shoot more, read, investigate about things that interest you and keep shooting, does not matter if on an assignment.

Carlos Villalon

He was born in 1965 in Santiago, Chile. He moved to New York where he took photography classes at The New School of design in 1991. In between jobs at several restaurants in the city he took off to several countries around the world. Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, India, Pakistan and Russia were the places where he taught himself photography. In 2000 he was offered a job with Getty images and moved to Colombia. Carlos has mostly focused his work in Latin America following its cultural, social and political aspects from the point of view of one plant, Coca and its counterpart, Cocaine. In 2004 Carlos won an honorable mention in the POYi awards for his work “Cocaine Country” that appeared as a cover feature in National Geographic magazine. In 2010 he was awarded second place general news in World Press photo contest for his work “Cocaine Gangs” in Medellin, Colombia. Currently He is represented by Redux Pictures in New York City.