It's a late Friday afternoon and artist-photographer Valheria Rocha is sitting on a fuzzy rug in her Atlanta studio musing about her initial creative memories. "Well, it's hard to think of my very first memory since we were always a very art-focused family," says Rocha, referring to her late artist grandparents. "There's a picture of me with my grandpa where I'm in little tangerine-colored shorts and I remember that day. We were painting or drawing. I spent so much time in my grandparent's studio watching them do what they did. I don't think it's a surprise that it impacted me so much."
With a passion for visuals a staple in her family tree, Rocha, who immigrated from her native Colombia to the United States when she was four, has been on an improbable journey since. It's one that recently reached new heights when Taylor Swift recruited the 24-year-old to photograph the campaign for her seventh album Lover, from its buoyant cover to the promotional shots that have appeared everywhere from streaming platforms to Amazon boxes to Times Square.
"I remember going to Times Square when I was in college and seeing all the ads, never imagining that I would ever have one," Rocha explains, who recently revisited the New York landmark see her own work among the bright lights. "I thought I only had one billboard, but my dad was like, 'Turn around. There's four!' To be someone, from where I came from and having lived the life of being a child of immigrants and being an immigrant myself… I don't think anybody in my family saw this coming. I don't think even my mom, with all her faith, saw this one in the stars."
Rocha's allusion to stars is appropriate considering her work is dotted with brightness and positivity. "I've always had a particular gaze for how I look at things," she says, noting that from a young age she wasn't just painting her nails, but crafting intricate designs like leopard prints, flowers or bananas. "I've always seen things through a very glittery, iridescent, pink and pastel filter, with stars and hearts and unicorns. I've always loved the same things, and you can see it if you go far back in my work. The romanticism and the light has always been consistent." With that in mind, it starts to make sense that the biggest pop star in the world — who was keen to brighten up her creative trajectory after the darkness and snake imagery that flanked 2017's Reputation — would be taken by Rocha's shiny view of the world. "I've always been told that my work makes people feel good and it makes me feel good too. So, for me, the pictures look like what Lover sounds like."
With Rocha's exploding stardom as the eye behind one of the biggest albums of the decade, it wasn't too long ago that she was not only working for free but thinking about giving up her artistic pursuits. Almost two years after graduating from Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design, Rocha had a rock bottom moment. "I was doing social media for fashion brands, and enjoyed it," she says, looking back on two concurrent gigs that were keeping her afloat. "I was having a lot of success and it was teaching me a lot." However, she got word that they were both being phased out. "I remember thinking when the first one dissolved that it was awful, and then three days later the second one dissolved." Out of options and knowing that big freelance photography jobs were out of her reach, she began to wonder if she should shift gears entirely. "I had this mentality of getting a 'real' job, which I think came from people around me. They'd say, 'Oh, you go to art school? What do you do, finger paint all day?'"
On the verge of quitting, she remembers a moment with her mother, Nancy. "I was crying with my mom in my bed and said, 'I think need to work in a company in a suit.' She was like, 'What are you talking about? What even is a real job? You've never even owned a suit. This is not how we raised you or what we taught you.'" Her mom outlined a plan: wait three months and put everything into her art. If things didn't work out after that period, then she could talk about a change. "She said, 'You can't give up without having ever even really started.' From there, I put everything into photography. I planned two or three photoshoots, not getting paid anything and started making it work." Thanks to her immense output, she started to gain public traction. Without ever having to dip into her savings, she was soon recruited by an agency that bills itself as a digital youth studio, the Los Angeles-based Adolescent Content. "It taught me that if you really believe in what you're doing, you're going to get where you want to go. The universe isn't that cruel."
When it comes to concocting her eye-popping imagery that she frequently posts on her popular Instagram, whether her glittery collages or photography (she's also photographed Stranger Things' Shannon Purser and band The Driver Era), Rocha says the process of creation always varies. Rarely does she have a solid idea or a concept before getting to work. "By the time I get into, it changes drastically," she says. "The way I approach something like my collages, is if I wouldn't want to wear it on a shirt, it won't work. I want it to look commercial, but also look very real." As a result, making most everything by hand is a signature part of her process.
"I have so many art supplies, I'll horde just about anything you can imagine. There are lots of random things in baggies and so many containers, because you just never know when you're going to need something." Once she makes a physical iteration, she'll then scan it into her computer, work digitally and print it out. It's through this process that a recent series of visual representation of star signs were created: the Virgo installment is speckled with stars, surrounded by flowers and centered on two eyes, all on a background of a beam of light. It doesn't take much to compare its visual style to the blockbuster Lover campaign.
"I'm very proud of the work and I'm so proud of Taylor," says Rocha of the star who gave her a shout out on her Instagram, calling Rocha an "artistic genius." "She kicks ass and this is an incredible feat for her," she says, no doubt ready to pull out the scissors and paper to see what she could craft next. "I'm just so humbled to be a part of this story with her."