During Taylor Swift’s meticulous rollout of new single “ME!”, she Instagrammed two photos that were not like the others. In one, she stood before a charmingly crinkled background and star cutouts, her head resting on her hand and a giant flower adorning her neck. The second featured Swift in a crop top and fringe jacket, spreading her arms out like the wings of a butterfly, the symbol of her new era. Both photos were emblematic of Swift’s latest album cycle—colorful, airy, and free—and Swift thanked the artist with a simple Instagram caption: “by the one and only @valheria123.”
So who is Valheria Rocha? The 24-year-old photographer and visual artist, who posts her collage-style portraits on Instagram, is from Colombia, has lived mostly in Atlanta, and will tell you off the bat that she’s very much a Scorpio.
Recently, ELLE.com caught up with Rocha. She wasn’t able to talk about the “Taylor Project,” (we wanted to know whether she would be shooting the album cover!) but she did offer one sentiment that sounded like it could’ve come straight from the pop star’s mouth: “I just want to make art that makes people happy, and that makes people smile, and that makes people feel good.”
How did you get interested in art?
I got started in photography in high school. I’ve always been artistic because, on my dad’s side in Colombia, my grandparents were artists. They did everything: They painted. They sculpted. They did photography. They drew. So we’ve really centered our family around our artistic talents, but I’m kind of the only person that really pursued it.
My dad grew up in a household of two artists, and they were poor their whole lives because they were not able to be very successful; they were not really recognized until after they passed away. So, to me, it was very shocking that my dad was so supportive and so willing to help me in everything art-related and never told me to do something else, even though he was poor his whole life because of art. That was very selfless of him, to put aside his experiences and encourage me.
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Do you remember your first big assignment?
I think it was 2016. This magazine called Crybaby wanted to know if there were any photographers in Atlanta, and I think I was one of the few people that reached out. The editor reviewed my work and asked if I wanted to shoot Shannon Purser, who was Barb on Stranger Things.
I went and photographed Shannon and had the best time. Those were some of my favorite pictures that I had taken to date. They were very honest, and were a really good expression of my style and my personality and my crazy weird ideas, and also Shannon’s personality. That was the first time that I ever had so much attention on my work.
You have a significant Instagram following. Do you feel like social media has opened up more doors for you?
I have this love–hate relationship with Instagram, because it’s very easy to get sucked into. We all go through these phases where we get super caught up into what everybody else is doing, and I think it really affects everybody’s mental health. I try to be very careful with Instagram, but I truly do not ever turn it off, because every single opportunity that has ever come my way has come via Instagram.
I photographed The Driver Era, which is Ross Lynch’s band, in 2018. It was for Grumpy Magazine, one of my favorite publications that I’ve worked for. I didn’t expect those pictures to be that big. But I also didn’t know their fans. Even just posting the behind-the-scenes photos of that shoot, I think I gained about 1,000 followers in less than two days.
You’re always posting your signature collages. How have those developed over time?
I started doing collage work in my senior year of college. I was in a fashion photography class and my teacher said, “I want to see final projects that don’t look like your typical fashion photography.” I was really influenced by Teen Beat and all of those magazines that I saw growing up, with all of our Disney idols on them—the harsh cutouts and the colors and the graphics.
They’re the most personal to me. I started making them just because I was looking at all these people, and I was like, I really want to photograph these people someday. And I didn’t know another way to get them to notice me. So, I was like, “Maybe if I make this cool art about them, they’ll see it and want to hire me to photograph them and make the collages with my own photography.” I remember 2 Chainz reposted my collage one time, that was a year and a half ago. That was by far my biggest accomplishment at the time.
What would be your dream project in the future?
I am still thinking really hard about how to answer that question, because a year ago I had made a list of goals, and nothing really scratched the surface of what I just did this year. It’s kind of mind-boggling. I have a lot of ideas that I’ve kind of dreamt up and that I’ve assigned to certain people that I would love to work with.
For example, I really love Camila Cabello. I think what she does for the Latino community is incredible. I think American culture has really influenced her, and I really relate to that because both of my parents are Latino, and I was born in Colombia, and I have that part of my heritage that’s very strong and important to me. But I grew up here, so I grew up disconnected from my Latin culture, and it’s very important to me to not forget that.
I dreamt up an idea where she and I would explore themes from our Latino community and our Latino heritage through colors and some fun scenery and just really beautiful clothes. She’s just got such a beautiful personality that she would be so fun to work with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.