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A year after her wallet was stolen from a gallery in San Francisco, photographer Jessamyn Lovell received a call from the police. They asked her two puzzling questions: Did she know a woman named Erin Hart, and did she give her permission to use her ID? Lovell didn’t know what to think — who is Erin Hart? She has my ID?

It turns out Hart tried using the ID to check into a San Francisco hotel, but it wasn’t the first time she’d used it. According to court documents, Hart had used Lovell’s license — and her identity — to rent a car in San Francisco (the credit card she used belonged to another victim). Lovell also received a court summons from Oakland, Calif., for traffic violations Hart committed under her name.

“That is when I really got upset,” Lovell told Credit.com. “I was really mad at this woman, because it cost me a lot of time and energy and expense.”

Lovell needed to prove she wasn’t involved. She embarked on a mission that would eventually take her thousands of miles, going back and forth from her home in Albuquerque to Oakland and San Francisco, with a suitcase full of documents designed to prove her innocence. The journey turned out to be about much more than that — it evolved into a fascinating hybrid of art and revenge.

Transforming Frustration Into Art

Hart pleaded guilty Aug. 29, 2011, of falsely impersonating Lovell and using a credit card without the cardholder’s consent. Her sentence included a yearlong stint in the county jail.

Even after Hart received her sentence, Lovell couldn’t get the incident out of her head: Why did this woman hold on to her ID? What about her life led her to use someone else’s identity? She hired a private investigator to learn more about Hart, following her artistic instincts. She mentioned to her friends at SF Camerawork how she had been compiling a collection of details about Hart, and they suggested she show it in the gallery, because that’s where Jessamyn’s wallet was stolen — where her ordeal began. With an exhibit in the future, Lovell was motivated to dig deeper into the question that had nagged her for months: Who is Erin Hart?

Lovell stood outside the county jail when Hart was released after serving a year for her crimes. She took a photo, one in a collection of videos, mug shots, photos and arrest reports compiled by Lovell in an exhibit called “Dear Erin Hart,” which will be on view through Oct. 18 at San Francisco Camerawork, the gallery from which her wallet was stolen in October 2009. You can see some of the pieces here.

Lovell says she invited Hart to the opening reception, but she didn’t show. As of early October, she hadn’t come by, but if she did, Hart would likely be alarmed at what she saw. Most people would feel unnerved if they went to an art gallery and saw years’ worth of information about and photos of themselves, blown up and displayed for anyone to see.

“Using a camera and occupying the varied roles of victim, stalker, investigator, artist, spy and vigilante, Lovell offers a body of work that touches on contemporary concerns of surveillance and selfhood within the information age,” reads a description of her exhibit on SF Camerawork’s website.

More than 2.1 million Americans sent identity theft complaints to the Federal Trade Commission last year, according to an FTC annual report on the subject, and while Lovell’s experience isn’t a unique one, her response certainly is. If Hart knew about it, Lovell’s project might stir in her some similar questions: Who is this woman? Why is she doing this to me?

Such feelings are common, said Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. People want to understand what has happened to them and why, but everyone deals with that struggle differently, Marling said, and as someone who works with victims of all sorts of crimes, including identity theft, he said it’s not his place to define their journeys.

“The idea really is that people can really learn to ventilate using whatever means they have available to them,” Marling said. He said there are myriad ways people can choose to deal with what happened, and that’s OK, as long as they’re not putting themselves in harm’s way or breaking laws.

Lovell’s work doesn’t seem to cross those boundaries, but it’s not really over yet.

A Mix of Anger & Empathy

From victim to stalker (as she herself says) — it’s certainly creative, if not a little disturbing, but Lovell’s intention wasn’t malicious, she says. She, like many victims of identity theft, says she wanted to understand the motivations of her perpetrator.

“I didn’t mean for it to be a public shaming of her,” Lovell said, but as her project gained attention, she started hearing from people who grew up with Hart, people who knew her from many years ago. They’re very different, Lovell said, but she also saw similarities between herself and Hart, motivating her learn more.

“I feel a little bit conflicted when someone sees this project as my sort of avenging this crime,” Lovell said. “It was all really in the service of building a picture of her so I could understand why she would do what she did.”

More than anything, Lovell wants to meet Hart. Through the private investigator she hired to help her piece together her image of Hart, Lovell found out where she lived and went there to hand-deliver an invitation to the exhibit. No one answered when she knocked. Credit.com used public records to find a few of Hart’s previous phone numbers, but they were out of service. We tried to contact a previous roommate and her public defender, as well, but as Lovell has experienced, Hart is difficult to find. Ever since Lovell decided she wanted to meet Hart, the woman has eluded her.

In the exhibit, photos and videos tell the story of Lovell’s work to clear her name and the woman who briefly hijacked it, but at the end, there’s a letter: It’s a handwritten note from Lovell to Hart.

“It’s a personal appeal to her to connect with me, that I’m not trying to do anything to hurt her,” Lovell said. “I just hope that she gets a chance to read the letter.”

The letter is sealed, but should Hart show up at SF Camerawork, the staff has been instructed to give it to her.

“I did have a genuine hope that she would come,” Lovell said, after Hart didn’t come to the opening. “I know it was a little naïve, but it’s still my hope she’ll come.”

More on Identity Theft:

Image by Laura Kenward; provided courtesy of Jessamyn Lovell

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