A Photographer Creates A Haunting, Uncomfortable Series About Her Identity Thief

“Identity theft” is not a phrase anyone likes hearing. The thought of your personal information landing in a stranger’s hands is terrifying. This incredibly personal type of theft is hard to catch, and often the only option for recovery is to start over.

These were the fears that artist and photographer Jessamyn Lovell felt in 2011 when police showed up at her door in Albuquerque, NM, to let her know that someone stole her identity. Even worse was the fact that the woman who stole Lovell’s ID committed several crimes, including parking violations and theft, while posing as Lovell. This earned the real Lovell a court summons. The police could only do so much; in fact, they were obligated to protect the thief’s identity, even from her victim. It looked like the identity thief was going to get away.

Lovell decided this was not going to happen. Not to her and, if she could help it, not to anyone else. She hired a private investigator and managed to track down the thief, Erin Hart, in San Francisco. From there, she took matters into her own hands like many artists do when faced with a major emotional event. She decided to turn the experience into a project called Dear Erin Hart. Lovell recently held an interview with Feature Shoot to discuss the project, which not only included gathering information on Hart, but also photographing her in secret.

A 2012 mug shot of Erin Hart.

Lovell’s and Hart’s IDs from 2011. Lovell’s first name is Laurel, but she goes by Jessamyn.

Lovell’s fingerprints, which would have been used as a measure to disentangle her identity from Hart.

The idea came to her when she learned that police couldn’t help her track Hart down. “It’s almost like I was responding as if someone were hostile towards me. I was feeling confrontational. I wanted to explain to her that she had caused damage,” she says. But at the same time, part of her wanted to know why a person would do such a thing. “Maybe she was in dire straights, or maybe she was struggling, and maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge,” Lovell recalls thinking, “I went into the situation angry, but I had an open mind, and I had an open heart. I wanted to have a conversation. As naive as it might sound to people, it wasn’t really about revenge. I could see how people might see it that way, but it was more out of a pursuit of understanding of another human being.”

The work of an artist, as Lovell describes it, is to explore the workings of the human mind, and the emotions and actions that define us as people. Lovell’s project, objectively, was all about this. It obviously has a strong subjective, personal significance as well. By sharing her story, Lovell hopes not only to talk about the fear and devastation that identity theft can cause, but also reach other victims and let them know they’re not alone. “Since I’m artist,” she says, “these are the tools I have, and I feel really lucky that I have these tools to communicate visually and share my story with an audience. Maybe other people who have been involved in identity theft could understand the complications of it.”

On the surface, this might seem like a vengeful tactic, where the victim turns the tables on a thief and steals their privacy in a similar manner. After all, you, me, and the rest of the Internet now know who Erin Hart is and what she’s done. Exposing personal information over the Internet with malicious intent, a practice known as “doxxing,” is a nasty practice usually done out of spite. Lovell, to her credit, has not revealed Hart’s personal information, but her practice of tailing Hart, snapping unknown photos of her, and then posting them has a definite “how do you like it?” feel. Other victims of identity theft, as well as those who may consider stealing someone’s identity, will realize that while identity theft seems easy, it’s just as easy for the victims to counterattack. It also explores the concept of privacy and surveillance in the modern world on a larger scale.

So what will become of Lovell and Hart? They have yet to meet, and it’s unclear if Hart even knows about Lovell or the project. Lovell, for her part, learned a lot about Hart, perhaps more than Hart learned about Lovell. “I go through periods where I think she and I are so much alike, and then I land on, ‘Oh my god, I would never do what she did.’ I want to say I learned that we have a lot in common, but I don’t know that that’s actually true. I know some things about her background […] that makes me feel like she wants the same things that I want.” She’s also reached out to Hart, inviting her to the gallery where Dear Erin Hart was showing in August of this year. Hart did not attend the show, but Lovell still has a sealed letter she wants to give to Erin Hart, and plans to attempt a face-to-face meeting.

“Next week, I’m going to make an attempt to meet with her, face to face,” Lovell says. “I don’t know if it will be successful. She might not even know who I am. My goal is to have a genuine face to face interaction, to be in the same presence, and I don’t know what that is going to be like. I’m eager to find out.”

Via Feature Shoot