Justina Villanueva is someone who I have followed from afar for quite sometime, and the more I have gotten to know her online the more she has consistently proven herself to be an awesome human being. Justina’s arresting photography has graced the pages of publications like Decibel, Revolver and the New York Times. She is equally skilled as a concert and portrait photographer, and I especially enjoy how much of her subjects’ character and inner life she is able to capture. She is also involved in the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, and her photo series Extreme Women celebrates the beauty and strength of some of the fantastic heavy metal ladies who contribute to this incomparable music scene. It’s a honour to have her as part of GDLM!
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How were you first introduced to aggressive music? Tell us your heavy metal love story.
My serious music interest began with”‘Ready to Die'” [by the Notorious B.I.G.]. I listened to that tape all day, daily, for much of my youth. I drove everyone in my house crazy. From there my interests in hip hop took off until I heard Pantera‘s “Walk” on the radio. For the first time, what I thought was “white-people music” became something I could actually relate to.
It didn’t take long for me to discover Korn and Limp Bizkit. One of my first big-girl shows was when I was 14. I made my then-preganant best friend take me to see Limp Bizkit and Method Man at the Continental Arena. For the first time I felt like I was somewhere where I belonged. Yes, I’m totally embarrassed-laugh-cringing right now. But, like I like to say, not every 14-year-old is lucky enough to know what a Darkthrone is.
My love truly secured when I met a group of kids in high school who played death metal. My metal love story started with hanging out in Chirag’s basement, smoking way too much pot and talking about Metallica for way too long. Not much has changed.
Similarly, what led you to pursue photography professionally? How did these two passions come to intersect?
Through some friends in college I learned what a camera was and how to use one. I bought my first SLR with some Christmas money. Instead of buying new books for the semester, I bought a camera.
The “professionally” part is just what happens when someone decides to pay you. Sometimes it’s forced (you call around asking for assignments), and sometimes you’re lucky (someone likes something you did and wants to pay you). For me it was a little of both. For me photography is a lot like what music is for my musician friends: you don’t wait to get asked to be in a band. You just start something with friends and you do it because that is all you can do. That’s my relationship with photography. I wasn’t taught formally. I just picked it up, got some help and advice and it became my outlet.
What led you to focus on concert photography?
In my teens, I would go to shows and afterwards I wished that I could look at pictures or video of what actually happened. There were a lot of shows at Elks Lodges and VFW Halls that definitely shaped who I am. I always wanted to capture the goofiness and the camaraderie. I just didn’t know how to.
Right now my biggest focus isn’t on shooting shows, though. I just shoot the kind of shows I want to. Two to three years ago, I was shooting shows like 4-8 times a week. Now I’ll only shoot something if I think the photos and content will be worthwhile. If its a band that I think is important or doing something different, then I’ll take the time to make some pictures.
What have been some of your favourite experiences (or at least the best stories) when it comes to shooting shows?
I have a lot of dumb stories. So and so said/screamed something really stupid right before so and so played. So and so stage dove and no one caught them, but everyone talked about it on Twitter for days.
One of my favorite moments of my show-going history goes to Elise (this is a story that she’ll hate). We were watching the pit ensue while Fintroll played at Gramercy. Some dude got his nose broken (I think that’s what happened; either way his face was bloody). As he was getting carried out by security guards, blood splashed into Elise’s pretty blond locks. Like a HUGE chunk of blood.
“Is there blood in my hair?”
“I think so, I can’t really see.”
“There’s fucking blood in my hair!”
The scene in the girl’s bathroom a minute later was probably the single most girly, yet most metal, moment I’ve lived. And then there was that time that I was putting gel in my hair and Hellhammer walked passed me in the girls’ bathroom and went to poop in a stall (apparently the guys room didn’t have doors).
Do you have a favourite subject, either concert or portrait?
I love shooting bands that are just raw and honest. I don’t like stages. Every single Tiger Flowers show has been a memorable one, whether I take pictures or not. This year three of my favorite bands to see/shoot have been Remote Burial, Cellular Chaos and Talibam. Even though they’re not “metal” bands, they’re filled with a bunch of punk-minded wild cards.
Do you ever find that you are treated differently or face any challenges as a woman behind the camera in the heavy metal scene?
A couple times I’ve gone to shows, where I’ll go up front and wait for the band to start and some douche-moron will be like, “oh, you better be careful,” or “oh, you shouldn’t be up here, it’s gonna get crazy.” Which drives me crazy. I’m not a big person, but I can hold my own for most shows. I don’t walk up to wimpy guys at shows and tell them, oh, you shouldn’t be up here, you might not be able to handle it. It’s just really bizarre and unnecessary.
Where do you find that a lot of the anxiety around women in heavy metal comes from: musicians, fans, labels or publications, everywhere?
I think more than anxiety there is confusion and people are at a loss for how to handle women in the scene. Metal has been, for the most part, all about its blunt, un-P.C. attitude. When you add women to this harsh fantasy world of gore and misogyny, it confuses everyone involved. Do you become more sensitive (to offend less), or less sensitive (to show that women are strong and can handle the brutality)?
People still don’t know how to write about women in metal bands. Its like we are aliens and unapproachable. So we just get a lot of stories about here’s this women in this band, and guess what, her vocals are loud and mean, JUST LIKE A GUY. WOW. It’s stupid. But, I know I’ve been guilty of it too. Sometimes you want to write about a band and you can’t just write about how killer they are, so you pull the “girl card” (check this band out, they have a female vocalist, lead guitarist, drummer, etc) and hope that helps the band get attention. We should be past that. But, we’re not there yet.
Then there’s the women musician discovery: oh wow, I’m a girl, maybe guys don’t want to play in a band with me. I’ve met some girls while doing this project and at shows, whom have had problems finding people to play with because guys don’t want to be told what to do by a girl. That seems so stupid, but it actually happens.
So yes, it comes from everywhere.
Tell us about your Extreme Women series. What are you hoping to accomplish with this project?
This is a project I have wanted to work on for a long time. I didn’t know how to go about it and I didn’t know exactly who or how I would ask. It’s something that has always been in the back of my mind and finally one day I decided to ask Melody (owner of Lucky 13s) to let me take her picture. At first I thought I would just take pictures of death metal fans, including mostly women. I thought this would prove to people that, you know, we have vaginas and we exist in this world. We have always existed in this world. Melody didn’t start liking Immolation two weeks ago. She is a true death metal lifer.
As time went on and I saw the stupidity of the “Hottest Women in Metal” blow up, I gained a better idea of how I wanted to direct it: minimal, on location set-ups that intimately showed the people who I thought were the glue of the metal scene. These are my friends and because of them my “scene” exists. There wouldn’t be as many awesome band logos without Karlynn Holland. Many people wouldn’t know about the most dark, occult bands if it wasn’t for Kim Kelly’s write-ups. As time goes on and I can set more time aside for the project, there are tons of people I plan on shooting (even though they don’t know it yet). From promoters and publicists to people I see at shows all the time.
How did you become involved with Rock Camp for Girls? Tell us about the program and your role in it.
I learned about Rock Camp a couple years ago through my lovely and fart-joke-warrior buddy Jeanne Fury. I immediately became enamored with the idea of what Rock Camp was, a place for young girls to be in a band and write songs (not just learn scales). It’s a really thorough program with all kinds of empowering workshops (like how to make a ‘zine, history of women who rock, an improv class and some self-defense thrown in). The more she told me, the more I wanted to learn. Then one day she sent me a link to their volunteer application.
I didn’t really know what to expect as a photographer. I just showed up for the first session with a bunch of lenses and memory cards, ready to learn. I felt like I was back in school, if school had rad Beyoncé dance parties and badass bands performing during lunch every day. The week went by really fast, yet it was one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had.
I felt like I really gained my perspective on the last day of camp, when campers perform the song they wrote in 5 days. The last band to play was this group called Black Diamonds. I lost it. Watch the video. These girls will totally become your heroes (they wrote that in 5 days and played it like pros). That’s what happened at all three showcases this summer (I did two sessions for girls 8-18 and one for adults). There’s a lot going on, but at the the end of the week you gain perspective and watch actual magic happen. It makes you realize that you can change someone else’s life by allowing yourself to just be yourself.
What advice would you give to anyone else, especially another young woman, who wished to pursue a similar career path to you?
There’s nothing that you can’t do. And there’s nothing that you can’t do that hasn’t been done already, so make it interesting. There’s my vague, million dollar advice.
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Justina Villanueva is a candy and 90s R&bB feen. She takes pictures of bands. Her work has been in the Village Voice, Decibel and Metal Hammer UK. Check out her website for her extensive portfolio of heavy metal photography.