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Artist Spotlight: Harlen Valentine

From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Harlen Valentine (@mixofmadness) is an immensely talented young photographer uniquely exploring the world around and within us. Her photography embodies what she calls “art-ivism”, presenting themes on the LGBTQ+ community, racism, women’s rights, and mental health. At only 20 years old, Harlen has already built up a stunning portfolio of award-winning digital and film photography, graphic media projects, and self-portrait work.

“With a camera, it's like capturing a moment in time we will never get back.”

Each image captures Harlen’s bold, vibrant, and authentic style. She explains, “People are scared to look each other in the eyes.” But Harlen has no fear of getting up close and personal. “I like the quote-unquote ‘flaws’ people have. The crow’s feet, the smile lines, those details are important to me.” The striking portraits are amplified with saturated colors, high contrasts, and compelling tones achieved through hours of detailed editing work. I think it [editing] is the other level of photography... When I edit I really tune into images and create my own world.”

In her self-portrait photography, these worlds often focus on mental illness and darker aesthetics.

“Mental illness is a taboo topic. But I thought, why does it have to be taboo if it's my reality?”

Being her own photo subject allows her to achieve a more vulnerable realness to the photography that she felt couldn’t be fully realized with models and editorial portrait looks. It has helped Harlen to further represent her personal experience with mental illness. Some self-portrait series have displayed topics of gender dysphoria, childhood trauma, self-harm, and rivalry.

The series Binary of Bipolar visually illustrates how much is contrasted when it comes to bipolar disorder. In this series, Harlen also worked with set design, using intense blue versus red pieces to create conflicting environments and moods

“I feel like my mental illness really moved me when I was younger. It was my entire identity. Now through my art, especially my self-portraits, I'm learning how to re-identify myself separate from my mental illness.

One strong pull has been a calling to “Art-ivism”, which is the unique blending of activism and art together.

“If I have a skill to create things I should use that platform to do something and help others.”

Being Hispanic, part of the LGBTQ community, and coming from a single-family home Harlen has had a mix of experiences that have attached her to activist movements. She remembers feeling very isolated saying, “I realized if I am struggling there are other people who are also alone and feel the same; so I wanted to represent that and be a voice.”

Even before truly accepting her own identity, Harlen felt connected with the Black Lives Matter movement after having dealt personally with police brutality and racism within her family relations. This abuse and trauma have continued to push Harlen to find new ways to use her voice for activism.

Her graphic media project, More Than Your Words won the national Young Hero Award in 2018 and was displayed at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, Liberty Museum, and Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush. The project explores how stereotypes and abuse can shape and imprison one’s mental image of themselves by combining mugshot style portraits with derogatory quotes and QR codes linked to the individual’s stories.

Most recently Harlen has opened a print shop through Etsy, selling her portraits, landscapes, and protest photos. A percentage of some sales go to activist organizations like the Amistad Law Fund and the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia. Along with this Harlen’s future goals include further exploring set design, working with small businesses, and continuing her self-portrait journey in finding ways to re-identify herself with art.

“I see the world in a lot of different ways that neurotypical people and other mental illnesses do; so it's been special to share that in my photography.”

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