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How To Steal Your Identity Back

A few years ago photographer Jessamyn Lovell had her identity stolen by a woman called Erin Hart. Artist that she is, Lovell began staking out Hart, stalking her, and trying to get to know her, eventually putting together her dossier on information and turning it into a photographic series. "Dear Erin Hart," is a strikingly humanistic series, exposing the boundaries of humans and the way we come in contact with one another. We talked to Jessamyn about what it’s like to conduct stakeouts, what the emotions during the process were like, and how art and life are interconnected.

The project started from Erin Hart stealing your identity but what made your anger or reaction to this turn it into a photography project?

The San Francisco Police Department Financial Crimes unit called me on the morning of February 8, 2011 to ask if I had given a woman named Erin Coleen Hart permission to use my New Mexico State driver’s license. Then about a week later, I got a summons to appear in court for an unspecified crime.

I wasn’t sure why I was receiving a summons in my name. I had no idea what I was accused of or anything about the crime, only that I hoped it wasn’t me who did whatever it was. I felt like a criminal and started to fear that perhaps I really had done something wrong even though I knew it must be connected to Erin Hart some how. For nearly a month I debated if I should get a lawyer, fly there myself, do nothing, or what. It stated clearly on the summons that if I did not appear in court it would result in a bench warrant being issued for my arrest.

After number of lawyers quoted thousands of dollars to appear in court in my place, I decided to fly to Oakland to appear in person with the documentation in my defense I had carefully compiled. My case was heard at the end of the morning on April 15, 2011, after I had watched dozens of people being carted off to jail in handcuffs for a wide range of petty crimes and misdemeanors. When my turn finally came, the judge calmly skimmed through the evidence I had submitted and then asked the prosecutor if she had any objection to dismissing this case in the interest of justice. The prosecutor agreed and then it was done. Shaking, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and I was able to walk freely out of the courtroom. That was when I got incredibly angry. When I had finally just pushed through all that I had to overcome to clear my name. In fact, there would still be several months until my name was fully cleared.

What is the kind of thing that goes through your head when you’re following someone or staking out their every move?

I hired a team of P.I.s to help me find Erin Hart after I had searched on my own for ayear. Pete, one of the P.I.s found her in jail finally and we set up an operation to follow her for a day after her release from jail on March 22, 2013. We spent most of the morning planning and waiting for her release. Then after she was finally free, everything moved really quickly. We followed her from the county jail to a gas station, then on the bus, then to a Good Will store, etc. It was incredibly thrilling just the experience of taking power back by following her every move. But then, I began to notice as the day progressed and I witnessed what Erin Hart’s life might be like after jail, I had developed a sense of empathy for her. I tried to explain it to Pete, a seasoned P.I. but he seemed perplexed. Many people seem confused as to how I could develop empathy for the woman who made my life miserable for nearly a year. The best way I have been able to explain it is that I could place myself in her shoes. I grew up poor and could see that if I made slightly different choices at different stages in my life, I could have ended up in a similar position as her. As the project has become more public, I have heard from those who know her in a variety of ways. They all confirm that she does not possess much or any empathy, remains unapologetic when caught, and is very cunning. She has often been described as “unhinged”, which is a term I immediately latched onto upon first seeing her. Most recently, I found out that she was sentenced to more jail time in early October 2014 for even more identity thefts. I also discovered a number of restraining orders out taken out on her by other women. In light of these most recent developments, I am even more conflicted about my relationship to her.

Did you ever meet Erin? What happened?

I have not met Erin Hart in person – yet. I have watched her in person several times form a distance and have been in very close proximity to her twice. My plan now that the exhibition at SF Camerawork is over is to find her again (in or out of jail) and with the help of a P.I. request a meeting with her so that I can hand deliver the letter I wrote her. The letter is sealed, addressed to her and was exhibited as part of the art show at SF Camerawork for the past few months. I sent her two invitations to the show in hopes she would show up and read the letter. In it I ask her to call my phone number to set up a meeting in person. I acknowledge that it is likely that this attempt might fail but my hope is that through the documentation and the act of attempting an actual formal meeting with her, I can put this whole experience to rest. I am sure that she doesn’t want to face one of her many victims but I want to at least make an attempt to reach out to her in a meaningful way.

What was the scariest part of the entire ordeal?

Honestly, the scariest discovery for me has been finding out how easy it is to steal someone’s identity and then also how easy it is to find someone, even someone that does not want to be found.

Your series No Trespassing also plays with unseen connections in a very powerful way. Do you find this is a theme you go to often?

I certainly had no intention of following people surreptitiously as the main strategy in my artwork when I started both projects. No Trespassing, where I found and followed my estranged father before his untimely passing a few years ago was definitely the strangest thing I have ever done. It came form wanting to learn about him and decide if it was a good idea to reach out to him after years of choosing to stay away from him. The work started as an act of vengeance for all the misery he put me and my family through in my childhood but progressed into a performance of sorts, which I documented and made into a yet-to-be-published book with the same title. I guess you could say that something similar happened during Dear Erin Hart,. I started out with this black and white idea of what I was doing and then the deeper I got into it, the more grey areas I found myself wading through.

All of your work is deeply personal. Does your life affect your art, does your art affect your life, or is there a binding tie that makes it difficult not to have one without the other?

This is a great question because I always have this fear that if crazy and weird stuff stops happening to me, what would I make artwork about? For instance, during Dear Erin Hart, I have been concurrently working on a project about my own domestic life as a new mom. Again, this work is very personal but much more subtle than any of my previous works. So subtle are the struggles in this new work, in fact that I find myself wondering if it’s even interesting to anyone outside of my immediate family, or even to them. I started making photographs of myself and my family in 1997 while we struggled with poverty and illness on a small farm in rural upstate New York. I started to use photography as a tool to process difficult emotions and trauma happening around me as a young person struggling to put myself through college while providing full time care for my family. I had no real intention of making fine art out of these images at first. I was in school for commercial photography and no one at school could understand how I would use these images to sell anything. After some encouraging words from a stranger about the work, who happened to be a very famous photographer, I applied and got into grad school on the West coast. I left my family and took this huge leap. I felt like a total outsider but I was fortunate enough to work with some incredible mentors who helped me to shape the work about my family into a book and exhibition. After the project ended eleven years later, I realized art had saved my life, literally and figuratively. Although it is a form of therapy for me the difference between what I do and art therapy is that I am educated and use the language of visual art to take apart life experiences and make sense of them publicly. I use these tools to communicate what I learn from experiences as they happen to me. I have chosen o make art of my personal life as a career but also, I cannot imagine an identity that did not include making artwork in some form out of my experiences publicly or not.

What new projects are you working on currently?

For my entire life one way or another I have struggled with socio-economic class and how it informs my identity but also just the day-to-day struggle with money. My next project, which is really just a zygote of an idea at this point, is a collaboration with my husband to pair down our possessions substantially and find a solution to build a tiny (or small) house on our own land even though we as a family have a substantial amount of debt. We are in the early processes of coming up with how to frame the project in a way that we can find grants or other public funding to make a public art piece out of our very personal life. We know we are not alone in facing the many difficulties of making ends meet and paying incredible amounts of student debt, especially when you have no family money or any financial cushion to fall back on. We are all responsible for the choices we make but the fairy tale we buy into form an early age is that even if you are poor, it is up to you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to own all the things and make all the money society says we need to be successful. What if we shift our perception of what success is? What if we can find potential solutions to having a satisfying quality of life through living simply and spending time doing things we love to do? We hope to address all these issues and more in this project.

How does teaching impact your work? What is your favorite part about it?

My husband and I both as artists and professors find that because we are each working at two careers, our lives demand twice as much time and work and neither of us is paid enough to support both endeavors (teaching and art-making). There are some perks to working for a university in that we both have health care, have a stable income, and have access to internal grants and other funding opportunities some artists do not. We also are fortunate to be surrounded by likeminded people that support what we do, for the most part. I would not be teaching if I did not get some pretty substantial satisfaction out of working with students from a wide range of backgrounds. I spent one year not teaching, working retail when we made the big move five years ago from the San Francisco Bay Area to Albuquerque. I found myself missing the classroom and missing the interaction with students. I thrive most in the classroom when I succeed as a working artist because I feel I set an example for my students that making art and showing it publicly is worth all the challenges if you are dedicated and passionate about what your ideas are. I also find that I work harder as a teacher knowing how hard it is to think creatively in a world that discourages this practice more and more. I want to show students, especially those just starting a college career the value of creative practice and how it impacts our everyday lives and our whole society. We are better people when we can learn to think for ourselves. The chances are pretty slim that more than a handful of students will choose to face the multitude of challenges to becoming a working artist and sustain a career as one. However, if I succeed in showing the majority of the students I come in contact with the importance of thinking critically about the world around them and to value creative thought, that’s something right?

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