| Interview by Ronnie |
'Storytellers' is our special interview series, in which we talk to creatives whom we admire and find out how they are each preserving their personal stories. Today's interview is with Leah Kua, a beautiful and talented photographer who lives in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales with her husband and their two girls. Leah's story is one that touches me deeply and every one of her photographs takes my breath away. I feel honoured to be able to share her words and her imagery with you all today.
Can you tell us a bit about you and your family?
My name is Leah. I am a Christian, a wife, a mother, a photographer, a homeschooler, a mountains dweller, and so much more. I adore pretty flowers, the smell of woodsmoke in the air on an autumn's day, handmade ceramics, french linens, all things white, and great adventures with my family. My husband, Jonathan, and I live in the Blue Mountains with our two girls and have been married for almost 13 years. We've lived here in the mountains for about 7 months. We never imagined this is where we would find ourselves, but when it came time to buy our home, we felt led here and were so excited for the opportunity provided us to raise our girls in a place that would nurture and inspire their minds, bodies, and souls. Our eldest daughter, Malia, is 11 years old and our youngest daughter, Zoe, just turned 8. After a miscarriage and 5 years of trying, we are also very excited to be expecting a little boy this winter.
What is it like living in the Blue Mountains?
It suits our lifestyle and who we are so perfectly! I still wake up every morning and can’t believe we are blessed to call this place our home. Something awoke in our girls the day we arrived. They are more alive than I have ever seen them, always excited to get outdoors and explore. I often catch snippets of them building fairy houses or pretending to be nature rangers or olympic gymnasts. The seasons are more distinct here. We’ve watched flowers in our garden bloom in spring and misty fog rolling in over the mountain tops – so thick you can barely see in front of you. We've also witnessed the leaves on our trees turning into blazing mixtures of reds and oranges in autumn. We haven't had a winter here yet though, and I’m a little nervous about that. Thankfully, we have a gorgeous wood heater that will help us through. Some of our favourite places to visit here in Blackheath are Logan Brae Apple Orchard for spiced apple cider and amazing views, Anonymous Cafe for coffee and muffins, Wind Eroded Cave for bushwalking, Minihaha Falls in Katoomba for a splash in the waterfall on hot days, and the monthly farmers' market located just down the road.
What is a typical day like for you?
Whilst we do have a schedule we follow along with, we also try to embrace the flexibility and adventure that homeschooling affords us, so no day is exactly the same. Some days we wake up early, cook breakfast together slowly or bake a loaf of bread, read through a bible study (usually on the She Reads Truth app), and then start the schooling day with math and english before moving onto more project-based learning. We often take our lunch to the park or head to the local bakery for our favourite pies. Other days we are rushing out the door to attend swimming, pottery, art, ballet classes, or homeschool groups that we have managed to find set up especially for homeschoolers (and therefore can attend during school hours). Some days we decide just to hop in the car and head off with no set plan in mind. Some of our most enriching experiences and memories have come from days like this. We’ve explored large forests and caves, discovered glowworm tunnels, stumbled across farms and lakes, and met some amazing people doing this – I find that the girls always take away so much from these adventures. I try to fit in work in the evenings or weekends as much as I can, but it is definitely a juggle trying to keep the balance between my business and the task I have taken on with homeschooling our children.
What do you love the most about homeschooling, and what do you find the hardest?
There is a lot to love, but probably the best thing is being able to create experiences that are unique to each of my girls – to their individual strengths and weaknesses. I am constantly on the look out for activities they can be a part of that support and encourage who they are and what they love. Being a part of their discoveries and achievements is something truly special. Malia especially is really starting to see her whole life as a learning experience, rather than just confining education to school hours, which is so exciting because I think that is setting her up really well for anything she wants to pursue in the future. I also love the relationship and bond the girls have formed as they spend more time together. Rather than annoy each other, which they can do, it seems to have allowed them to better understand each other and develop a deeper love which I hope they will carry into adulthood.
The hardest thing is finding balance between schooling and everything else. I take my role as their educator and facilitator very seriously and spend a lot of one-on-one time with each of them. I don’t resent this at all because I honestly feel blessed to be able to spend such quality time with them, but it does mean that, whilst they get breaks throughout the day when I am with the other one, I never get a rest. This makes finding time to run my business or just having some downtime hard, but I’m constantly striving for better balance.
How would you describe your experience of motherhood so far? How do you feel as you watch your two beautiful girls grow and change each day?
Motherhood has to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. I often catch myself staring at them and just thanking God for the moment we are in, for who they are, and that I get to be the one to be here to watch them grow, to love on them, to kiss them goodnight, to pray with them, and to help them when they are hurting. I feel so grateful and a little nervous about the future and what the whole "empty nest" thing might feel like, but ultimately, my heart just constantly overflows with love for them.
Is there any aspect of their childhood you wish you could freeze in time?
All of it? It is confusing and amazing and hard as a mother to watch your children grow up. I love what they were like as babies and feel so lucky to have had such easy-going, beautiful girls with such love, joy, and empathy in their hearts. But I also love and cherish what we have now. I love the discussions I have with Malia – the way she confides in me, asks such thoughtful questions, and expresses both excitement and trepidation in her own growing independence. And I love the cheeky sense of humour coming out in little Zoe and how amazing it is to see her progress and learn things we weren't sure she ever would and to be a part of that process. I am trying very hard to learn to appreciate it all and not spend time wishing things were a certain way. If time could go a little slower though, I sure would appreciate that!
How do you feel about welcoming a little boy into the family?
Ah...a little terrified! I am very used to girls. I have girls, I came from an all-girls family, and even my mother came from a family of all girls. I'm pretty sure that trend goes back even further. When we first found out we were having a boy, I was deeply shocked and felt so guilty for feeling that way. My amazing husband did the best thing he could have possibly done: he told me it was okay to feel that way. After that, it didn't take long to move on from those feelings and to start to enjoy the idea. Still, having a little boy – and then a man – is something my brain has not quite caught up with yet. However, I remember something a friend said to me during the time we were trying for a baby and I was worrying about what things would be like if it were a boy. She said, "Wouldn't you like to be responsible for bringing a really nice man into the world?" From the moment she said those words, it didn't seem quite so scary. We definitely need more of those. And after five years of trying, I do truly believe that a little boy is God's plan for us.
I absolutely adore your photos of Malia and Zoe. Can you tell us what compels you to capture a particular frame?
Those beautiful girls have been my muses since I first held a camera. Everything about who they are and how much I love them compels me, which is why I always try to make sure I have my camera with me. Whilst they are very used to the camera being in my hand, I try to be as unobtrusive as I possibly can. I want to capture them beautifully without interrupting their natural play and behaviour. Having said that, if they do something cute and I miss it, I'm not opposed to asking them to do it again. I have been through so much in life – lost people close to me and suffered from crippling anxiety on and off, especially since becoming a mother – that has me living for today more than most. Whilst people often say to live each day like it is your last, I sometimes feel I do this too much. And think about it too much. And yet, it is one of the major driving forces behind why it is important for me to invest time into being with the girls – sacrificing other comforts and freedoms in order to do so – and to capture their lives. These moments will not come again.
Can you share with us how you go about documenting their childhood and your family life in general? Has your approach changed over time?
I think as life has progressed, I have started to see the value and beautiful fragility of relationships more, which has changed the way I shoot. I find it so special when I see the girls giggling in a joke with their daddy, my eldest putting together something special for her sister just because she knows it will make her smile, or the look of complete content and joy on my own father's face when he spends time with our girls. I will try to grab whatever camera is closest, as quickly as I can in those moments, in the hope of creating just one frame that captures it beautifully. I think that's why my favourite thing is to capture my family. Unlike a professional shoot, where there is an expectation to take a certain number of photos and a particular combination of people, with my own family, it's simply about the moment unfolding in front of you and nothing else. If you get a few great photos, that's fantastic, but one is really all you need. Then you can get back to actually living the moment alongside them.
Do you have any special plans for documenting your baby’s first year?
Because I was not a photographer when the girls were babies, I have never really given this much thought until now. I know that I definitely want to shoot some beautiful black and white film images when he is first born. Something timeless and exquisite. And as much as I don't like being in front of the camera, I will probably invest in some family photos as well. I truly believe that no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, it is worth doing from time to time because images with you in them are about so much more than just you. My husband and children love me for who I am, here in this moment, and the best time for me to be in front of the lens is not when I've lost 10kg, have money for better clothes, or more time to do my hair and make up – it's right now! From there, I just plan to continue photographing life the way I do now, which he will naturally become a part of. I'm sure Instagram will be overloaded with baby photos, and I'll drive people crazy because of it.
In addition to your iPhone, what other camera do you use? Can you tell us when you use your DSLR or your iPhone for photos?
My "go to" camera for both personal and professional use is the Canon 5D Mk III, usually with the 50mm f1.2 lens. For a large DSLR, I've found this to be the most compact combination and the shallow depth of field I get from the 50mm lens is just magic. I tried to avoid even testing that lens for the longest time because it is definitely an investment, but from the very first time a friend innocently suggested I "give it a go," I was hooked and had to have it. Now it is on my camera probably 90% of the time.
Whilst I agree that the best camera is the one you have on you at the time, I definitely prefer the images from my DSLR. Being able to draw attention to a specific part of the frame through the use of light and shallow depth of field is a big part of the way I shoot, but if I only have my phone, I will definitely use it. If anything, the iPhone makes me work harder because everything is in focus and creating an interesting frame out of that takes great care and thought.
How do you usually edit your photos?
I mainly use Lightroom on all my digital images and start with a small selection of VSCO presets that I have found suit my style. It never just takes one click though. From there, I adjust each image for exposure, white balance, colour temperature, contrast, highlights, tilts (I'm terrible at keeping my camera straight), and lens correction if required. I use the VSCO app for my iPhone images as well.
Would you consider yourself a memory keeper? What sort of albums or photo books have you made over the years?
From the moment I picked up my first camera seven years ago, something inside of me has felt compelled to take photos. Even when I am not in the best frame of mind, or even I when feel a little resentful towards the cumbersome nature of a DSLR, I continue to feel a drive within myself to capture images, especially of my own family. This desire to capture moments has turned me into a memory keeper over time without me even realising it. The girls and I love to look back over images that were taken one, five, ten years ago. And for all my talk about how beautiful the images are from my DSLR, what I've noticed the most is that when we look back, the prettiness or technical aspects of the photo are not what's important. It can be the grainiest, lowest resolution image around, but if it has captured something that we know has passed, and if it is the only image that holds that memory, it becomes beautiful.
Whenever I have some spare time and money, I try to put together books to get our images off the computer. Sometimes the book is created around a trip we went on as a family. Other times it is a collection of images I took of one of the girls, and I imagine when they are older, those individual books will be gifted to them. I love to print all my Instagram photos as well. I usually use Blurb's books for most of our family memories, and I tend to upgrade the paper and cover options because I love texture and heavyweight papers. I'm always on the look out for discounts, which they have quite frequently, and that helps a lot. I believe that investing in printing our memories should be a priority, but at the same time, it shouldn't be a burden – financial or otherwise.
Going forward, what keepsakes do you hope to create for your family?
For me, memories are the most important thing and photos allow us to remember things we may not otherwise. Malia says she remembers the day that Zoe was born and how she helped me by splashing water on my back. I'm not sure she would remember that if we didn't have photos of her doing it. We don't always keep other things, like birthday cards, trinkets, or childhood drawings forever. I find the things that create clutter a little annoying, although I do try to photograph a few special ones when I can. I mainly focus on creating experiences that I think will bring us great joy as a family – like our Christmas spent in New York a few years ago; the trip Malia and I took to Europe when I had some photography work booked over there; our homeschooling adventures; and other special holidays such as our stay on a yacht in Palm Beach. I then focus on capturing and documenting those occasions so that the best parts of those experiences can wash over us time and time again, allowing the sweetest memories to stay with us always.
Would sort of keepsakes have you held onto from your own childhood?
When my mother passed away ten years ago, my father sold our house not long after. At the time, I was not ready to go through everything and decide what to keep and what not to keep. Because of this, most of it was thrown away, which means I don't have many physical, tangible keepsakes. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to grow up in the same house I was brought home from the hospital into, and because of that, I can close my eyes and remember pretty much every detail. I do have a few rather embarrassing journals from my teenage years that I've kept despite the fact they make me cringe. Other than that, I have a few precious photos of my childhood, of my parents when they first met (which I just adore), and of some family christmases – these I found by digging through boxes at my grandparents' old house. My father recently gifted me my parents' wedding album as well, which as a daughter and a wedding photographer, I find extremely special.
What are the stories that you want to preserve, for yourself and for your family?
I want to remember the big things and the small things, the intense love that we share, the harder moments where we cling to each other and cry, and the moments that make us cry from laughing so much – these all add up to our life together. I want my girls to have precious memories of their childhood to carry with them to inspire their journeys. I want them to look back on these days and know how adored and valued they are and always will be. The one thing I know I will never regret is the time spent with them.
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You can read the other posts in this series here.