Behind the Lens:
Meet Instagram Creative Valheria Rocha
12 ・2 ・ 2018
By Isabel Bina
There is no cookie-cutter formula that guarantees success. In every field, whether it be business, fashion, or photography, you try, you fail, you grow, and ultimately you cultivate your authenticity. There is no right or wrong, and having the will to be resilient is the most rewarding approach.
Having received her BFA in Photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta Georgia, photographer and collage artist Valheria Rocha has taken her toolbox of refined technical skills and flipped it on its head. Opposing textbook conventions and firmly standing by “her way” on projects, Valheria courageously seeks to create an ethereal world of pastel wonderlands. Through DIY projects of butterfly canopies, dazzling nail art, and makeshift outdoor studios, the 23-year old artist challenges what it means to be a successful photographer.
Valheria’s authenticity and creativity have matured from her mindfulness; from listening, watching, and feeling the complexities of our world, she offers her audience nuanced narratives to explore. When inspiration strikes, she stops at nothing to materialize her fantasy— not even when prominent brands question her creative direction. So, to learn more about her innovative approaches within the creative world, I sat down with Valheria to talk about integrating her hispanic heritage into her work, navigating the turbulent waters of social media, and curating the whimsical dreamscape that is her Instagram.
Tell me about yourself!
I was born in Colombia but we moved to the US when I was about four and a half and we I have lived here pretty much my whole life.
I’ve always done art because my grandparents were artists in Colombia, so it has always been a part of my family, but I’m ironically the only artist in my entire family — which is a very big family — that pursued it as a career. I picked up photography in my junior year of high school because it was the only elective that wasn’t AP Life Drawing, so I got into the class and I had never really taken pictures before with a purpose. I had a really big background in musical theatre — I’d done 17 musicals .
I was a really big musical theatre nerd and that’s what I thought I wanted to go to school for. In fact it’s what I had applied to universities for. I had all these auditions and got into all these schools, but two weeks before school was over I had a moment where I thought, “is this really what I’m supposed to do? I love doing it, but is it my talent?” The more I thought about it, the more I was like I love doing this and I’m decent at it, but let’s be real: I’m never going to be on Broadway. I want to travel and meet people and create things. Since I had already been doing photography I decided to go try that for a while and then it just sorta stuck! I loved it, and fashion came out of that because of my background in musical theatre: I loved setting up scenes, directing people, and coming up with characters and ideas.
Something that I have always respected is your passion and admiration for your Latin heritage. How would you say that has informed your work?
I think my work is really colorful and Latin American culture is very colorful as well, but it didn’t start off intentionally. I’ve always been proud to be Latina. I’ve always been proud of my heritage and culture, and in my house we definitely grew up as connected as possible to that. But I’m realizing now, at 23, that we weren’t as connected as I wish we could have been. Making work about my Hispanic-ness is more of a recent thing, because I started realizing I didn’t know as much as I wanted to. I knew about my family history, but not enough about my Colombian culture. With the Hispanic Heritage Month project that I just did with my friend Nicka (she’s also Colombian) we set out to connect ourselves back to our culture and also to educate people in a non-pushy way. It was a really important project to me—probably my favorite one— and I wish we could have done more, we just didn’t have enough time, but I don’t see why it has to stop because Hispanic Heritage Month is over.
I don’t know if in my work, previous to this Hispanic heritage month, (that) it was coming across that I was Hispanic. And I don’t know if it’s something that I want to convey; I don’t know if its something I want to be obvious— it’s something that I think about a lot.
I don’t know if I want people to be like “Oh, she’s a Latina female photographer.” I think it’s incredibly obvious that I am a female photographer, because men and women make art differently, and you can tell: my work is very soft and feminine, even when I photograph men it has a female touch. But, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a thing to tell culture. I don’t know if it’s important to me to have people know that I am a Hispanic female, because there are no hispanic female photographers—I don’t know of any. In history there has never been— at least that I know of— a hispanic female photographer that has shot Vogue, or the September Vogue (issue). And it’s 2018. I think it’s important but I don’t want that label. But, there is also a side of me that thinks “why is it a bad thing?” I struggle between the two. I feel it’s important because of where I am right now -- I am starting to create a platform where people are listening and it is important for them to know there are hispanic female photographers.
You do what you have to do, and you can’t let that stop you — real artists won’t let themselves be stopped or hindered by anything, really.
As an active Instagrammer, do you think the social media site is doing what it should be doing for creatives? Is it helpful as well as hurtful?
Oh, it’s absolutely hurtful— but also helpful. It’s hurtful in that there is so much out there and it is so easy to get caught up. You don’t even realize that you’re caught up in it until you are depressed. It’s an ebb and flow. I go through periods where I am creating, creating, creating and I am hardly looking at what others are posting on Instagram. I also go through periods where all I’m doing is looking at what people are creating and I’m not creating or posting as much content as I want to be. And it’s hurtful because I feel like its very much people showing off what they’re doing and showing off their accomplishments. I feel like you have to be a very strong person within yourself to not let that get to you. It is so easy to let it all get to you and think, “well why are these people getting all of the success, and I’m not?” I do that, all the time. But it’s also helpful because I wouldn’t have gotten any of the jobs that I have if it weren’t for Instagram.
How has Instagram controlled the distribution of your work?
Instagram— as much as I hate to say it— is everything for my work. I don’t even really know people that go to my website. Every job I have ever gotten is because of Instagram: someone will contact me because they found my email through my Instagram. Everything is there, that’s where I share my work. I’m really not technologically advanced; I don’t know further than what I need, and I’ve never used Tumblr or Pinterest the way people are supposed to use it to market, but my work ends up on there because of Instagram. It’s not like I post to it, but the other day I saw one of my pictures had thousands and thousands of notes because someone found it on Instagram and reposted it to Tumblr.
Have you ever deeply conceptualized a shoot— put your heart and soul into it— and weeks down the line see it be replicated?
*laughs* Yes, all the time!
The first time it happened to me it was one of those moments where I thought “am I being paranoid?” But, the more I thought about it and showed other people I realized I wasn’t being paranoid. No one was doing it, it was such a specific idea. I had posted all my behind the scenes content (my pictures hadn’t even come out yet), and then all of a sudden two weeks later someone was doing the same setting, the same color scheme, and the same kind of props. People say that copying is the highest form of flattery, but no, it’s not. You can be inspired by someone without copying them. I don’t think anyone has original ideas at this point. I get all my ideas from movies, music, books, people that I see on the street, and the random props that I find. Then I build an idea that is an original concept around that. When someone goes and copies that it is hurtful because no one is going to know who the original idea was [from].
I’m sure there are people out there passing my work as their own, it has happened to me before. The first time it happened someone didn’t want to credit me when I shot Sophia Lillis from IT. I found this random obscure post from someone on the other side of the world and they were literally acting as though they shot the picture and it didn’t make sense. The second I found that and asked the person to fix the tag, and to credit me and to credit my team—because it’s not even about me— my pictures do not just come up on their own by magic. There is a team of people involved. It is a group effort, and so aside from me getting the credit I want everyone to know who had a part in making that magic happen. The person ignored my request and eventually blocked me. It got me thinking if this is happening here, how many times has it happened with other people and other work and they don’t even know? I don’t think there’s anyway to fix it and you can only care so much about it. If someone was to go profit off my work that’s different, but if they are sharing my work on the internet without crediting me there is (only) so much I can do.
I think something else, besides your aesthetic, that makes you stand out is the fact that you don’t have a huge studio and expensive equipment. You do “you” in a very specific way and there’s great power behind that. What is your approach to your craft, and what sparks your imagination? (the nail art, flower gloves, butterfly canopy?)
The gloves are an example of how you can take inspiration and make your own idea out of it. I saw a photograph of Yara Shahidi and she was wearing all Dior: she had these long sheer Dior gloves that had beautiful flowers on them. Obviously I’m not in a position where I can buy my own silk Dior gloves, but I felt like there was a DIY in there. This image was in the back of my mind, and as I was cleaning out one of my closests I came across my costume box. On top of a random maid’s costume there were these white lace gloves and, I thought “OMG all I have to do is find fake flowers and glue them.” I made them, and I love them because they’re delicate and fun and theatrical. I love making statement pieces which are a signature to my work. There’s a simple image with an iconic element. I always strive to make an image that when people will look at they will think, “That’s a Valheria Rocha.”
Something that I’m really proud of is that I can make the work that I make without half of the equipment that big name people are using to produce work of the same quality or caliber. I don’t think you should ever let money affect what you can and can’t make because you really can get creative without having access to super fancy lights and supplies. I’m not saying equipment doesn’t make your life easier, because it definitely does. Before I could afford my own background stands we were thumb tacking backgrounds to the wall or we were hanging it to trees or have people on ladders holding it up. You do what you have to do, and you can’t let that stop you. I feel like that really is the definition between someone that is a true artist versus someone who thinks they’re an artist, because real artists won’t let themselves be stopped or hindered by anything, really.
(Valheria’s manger, McKenzie: I think it’s important to note that sometimes certain people or even bigger names that we work with may expect a certain situation because that is what they are used to and what has become the norm of the industry. Sometimes certain people may feel uncomfortable at first because they are used to being in studio setting, but V loves to shoot everything by natural light: We like to take the studio outside for her, and that’s when her best work comes out. Once they see that they come back and don’t question it a second time.)
That’s why I try to be so vocal about it and share what my set looks like because people don’t know. I get clients that want my specific work, but they want it to be done in studio when in reality it’s literally done on the side of my parents house, and you would never know. I love natural light and I think something I’m good at is finding natural light and using it to my best ability. Even if I had the money for a studio and expensive equipment it would be a studio filled with natural light: all glass to capture all the light.
I feel like in school I was taught that if you don’t use [studio lighting] you can’t really call yourself a professional photographer and that’s bullshit, because what am I then?! I’m doing work for companies, making money, and earning a living but I’m not using studio lighting or fancy equipment. It can be done.