Jessamyn Lovell was a victim of stalking and identity theft, until she turned the tables on the perpetrators
Local Artist Combines Photography and Investigation
People choose different career paths. Some become artists making work that analyzes the world around us. Many become educators empowering their students with knowledge. Others become investigators seeking the truth. As a photographer, private investigator, and college professor, Jessamyn Lovell chose all three.
Lovell said these career fields are interdependent. Her projects demonstrate the subtle ironies of human connection. Students who study under Lovell don’t just learn how to take a picture. They learn to investigate the subjects they photograph.
“My work is about healing as well as learning to see others’ stories and how they intersect with our own,” Lovell said. “The work of a private investigator isn’t art, yet I’m approaching this career as an artist.”
Lovell’s rough upbringing informs her projects. In an episode of “This American Life,” she told the story of growing up middle class until her father left her family when she was 11 years old. Her mother and three sisters lost their house, leaving the family destitute.
Later, her father attempted to have Lovell kidnapped. The family was forced to relocate to avoid him. Eventually her mother became sick and young Lovell became a caretaker.
Photography became a coping mechanism for the teenage Lovell. She began documenting traumatic events with a camera. A combination of photography skills and a Nancy Drew obsession created the fusion of artist and investigator that she is today.
As an adult Lovell returned to memories of her estranged father. She found out where he lived and began driving out to his residence on the weekends. Never confronting him, she observed her father and his life from the outside, through a telephoto lens from 2007 to 2011.
“I could see him, but he couldn’t see me. I felt like I had some sort of power,” Lovell said.
Lovell showed surveillance photographs of her father in an art exhibit called “No Trespassing,” at a San Francisco gallery called SF Cameraworks. As she set up the show, her wallet was stolen.
She didn’t realize the severity of the problem until a year later when the police notified her a woman named Erin Hart stole her identity.
“Turns out my ID has been used repeatedly by a woman in San Francisco to run a small drug operation, get cited for various petty crimes, rent cars and get massive amounts of parking tickets, all in my name. I have been issued a summons to appear in court in Oakland,” Lovell wrote in an email dated April 11, 2011.
Lovell was struck with thousands of dollars of debt from a rental car company, $500 from a collections agency, unpaid parking tickets, and a court summons for petty theft. She had to buy a plane ticket to Oakland to prove in court that her identity was stolen, and to get the charge expunged so it wouldn’t appear on her record. It took Lovell nine months to straighten out the mess Hart caused.
“I couldn’t let it go as something someone did to me that I had no control over,” Lovell said.
Lovell began investigating Hart like she did her father. She would observe her identity thief for a period of three years.
While tracking Hart, Lovell ended up at a hotel where Hart was busted for using Lovell’s license. Hotel staff said Hart returned for her cat once she was released from jail. Hart was upset when staff said they didn’t have the cat.
Lovell’s anger toward the woman who caused all this trouble for her began to turn to empathy. She learned more about Hart and her life, realizing she was homeless. She began to identify with Hart, having experienced homelessness as a child herself. Lovell could see how her life could have ended up like Hart’s.
When Lovell’s investigations gained media attention, many news outlets framed Lovell’s investigation as revenge. Lovell said the story is more complicated than that.
“To me it doesn’t boil down to the criminal and the victim. It’s not that simple,” she said.
Lovell hasn’t been able to find Hart since her initial investigation. Hart is estranged from her family and none of them have had contact with her for years.
Lovell exhibited a culmination of photographs, documents, and video of her experience tracking Hart in an exhibition called “Dear Erin Hart” in 2014 at the same gallery in San Francisco where she exhibited photographs of her father.
“Despite our preoccupation with the invasive reach of surveillance and information technology, ‘Dear Erin Hart’ suggests that human identity – real, digital, or otherwise – remains an elusive target,” reads a SF Cameraworks exhibition synopsis.
Lovell is currently collaborating with a screen writer on a fictional adaptation of “Dear Erin Hart,” as well as working with a production company on a pitch for a feature-length documentary.
Lovell decided to get her private investigators license after realizing that with “No Trespassing” and “Dear Erin Hart,” she acquired more than half of the 6,000 hours of training needed to receive a license. She turned her P.I. training into a D.I.Y. crime show.
Viewers can watch her go on stake outs, meet with clients, and learn how to shoot a handgun on video here. Lovell displays her training process in an art exhibit in fall 2017 at Central Features Contemporary Art at 514 Central Ave.