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A Conversation With Australian Photographer, Leïla Joy

Women, vulnerability and the power of travelling.

We used to think that showing off our bodies, as women, was instantly a lack of sophistication. In surfing, it’s one thing—we don’t want to see women in bikinis because not only men belong in the lineup, women do too, and it should be shown. But in other spheres of our lives, women have learned throughout the years to use their bodies as an empowering tool, a tool they use to control their own narrative—control who they want to be and what image they want to show. Their bodies, their choices.

There is something incredibly beautiful about women, in all their shapes and flaws, and Leïla Joy’s photos are a constant reminder of this beauty. Her photos remind us that women are independent, strong and powerful. That they’re chasing the sun in the hope of finding some magic along the way. That they’re driven and won’t stop hustling until they get what they want. But that they also are delicate and for once, are not looking to hide it anymore. Being naked is putting yourself in a vulnerable position and accepting this situation is to accept yourself as you are. We should not fear nakedness and vulnerability. At least, not anymore.

This is what Leïla’s photos capture; the true essence of places and people.
Originally from Sydney, Australia, Leïla has been gifted by a passion for life and the world that surrounds her. Fascinated by photography, she is constantly roaming around the globe, looking for new adventures and new subjects to capture. She also enjoys photojournalism, which is something you may not have seen much from her Instagram’s account but will quickly discover if you go on her website.

Without revealing too much about her, I will simply say that Leïla is not only a talented photographer living a colourful life, but she is a beautiful human being with thoughts that are worth reading. I recently had a chat with her about her evolution into photography, female nudity and all the other things you may not know about her yet.

You’re well known on Instagram for your pictures of women in dreamy locations, but your photography skills and interests are deeper than the beauty of what we see. From fashion to photojournalism to wildlife, you cover a wide range of subjects. How did you get involved in photography?

I’m not 100% sure when it all started. My parents have a beautiful collection of photography books at home that cover topics from Sudanese tribes to aerial landscape photography to wild horses, so as a kid I already was drawn to the medium and what it could communicate. My dad was originally the family photographer, having backpacked around the world as a young adult shooting on old film cameras. He and my mom both documented my siblings and I growing up, and I guess there’s a year where I started borrowing his camera on family holidays and enjoyed mucking around with it, with three younger siblings as subjects. A hobby turned into a passion, and soon I was saving up to buy my first DSLR camera when I was 16. 

Being from Sydney, Australia, it looks like you are on the road most of the time. Do you think travelling played a big role in your evolution as a photographer?

Yeah, definitely! I think I’m incredibly lucky to have grown up in a household where travelling was very much encouraged and valued. I was born in Switzerland and have a mixed background, so I’ve always known a world in which travel was important. We’d try to go back to visit the family in Europe as often as we could manage, so that was a continuous dichotomy of cultures and landscapes. My parents also organized a lot of family trips and adventures, and they’re some of my best memories from my childhood—road trips around Australia, camping, tropical islands, exploring the Mediterranean… And, as we grew older, culture shock in Third World countries, challenging treks, volunteer work, and all the trips I then went on to organize myself. I think the more I saw of the world, the more I wanted to see. There was never parental pressure to go straight to university or to stop “wasting time” if travelling was involved, especially as most of the trips I was interested in pursuing as a young adult involved volunteer work or getting out of my comfort or exploring completely new regions. It’s been core to my development as a person, and thus as an artist.

I think that travelling challenges and continues to expand and develop my worldview and my spirit. It certainly influenced the fact that I prefer shooting outdoors or on location; I love light, texture, colour, nature and its elements. It’s a tremendous source of inspiration. I feel I am again and again pulled towards exploring through my lens, whether it’s landscapes or people or cultural interactions, or even fashion-based work. Being able to capture and share that with others is part of the magic of photography. There’s also the fact that travelling means witnessing a myriad of differences, and in turn becoming a lot more aware of how unique each single person and place truly is, whilst still having a connective thread of human experience. Seeking the extraordinary in the “ordinary”. 

What are you trying to showcase through your images? Do you have any specific purpose while shooting?

I think that very much depends on what I’m shooting. Sometimes it’s about capturing and sharing a moment, or an emotion. Sometimes it’s about showing beauty where I see it in nature or in people. Sometimes it’s about telling a story or creating a mood. I think there’s an inherent relationship between creation, documentation and expression that comes through whilst I’m shooting, and I’ll often be particularly more in flow with one of these aspects at any given time.

Women nudity, if not represented correctly, can easily become tasteless. Through your images, though, we can feel that you embrace the female’s body, that you aren’t falling into the “too sexy/vulgarity” vibes. What do you like about this aspect of photography?

I’m glad that’s what comes through in my work! I think that as a female photographer, I’m forever on my own journey of understanding and exploring sexuality and what it means to be a woman, especially trying to find balance between strength and vulnerability. For me this is also physically visible in the female form; the curves and the shapes, the movements, the energy, the echoes of these within nature as the source of creation. I love shooting nudes as I find the process (and the resulting images) to be quite raw and real. I love being able to focus on the person in front of me and paying more attention to emotions or to shapes or to light, where perhaps I’d have otherwise been distracted by external elements like clothes or styling that needs to be shot a certain way. It literally strips things back to a place of organic flow and of creative energy. It’s incredible when you think how being photographed nude is actually quite a vulnerable state to be in, and then contrarily witness how much strength and empowerment and freedom it can also evoke.

I know there’s always the filter or viewpoint of myself as the photographer in how I choose to capture the images, so I inevitably do influence my photographs in the sense that I don’t want to shoot in a way I deem to be “vulgar.” That’s also just not how I perceive the women I work with, and I don’t shoot with a male audience in mind. I also try to work with my models to help channel what they want to express, to make sure they’re feeling comfortable and in touch with their bodies and with whatever elements surround them. I think that nudity does not necessarily mean sexuality, and that sexuality doesn’t necessarily mean nudity. I also think the nude form should be embraced and celebrated—for instance, I don’t see anything wrong with feeling sexy or sexual and with women embracing that aspect of themselves.

It’s incredible when you think how being photographed nude is actually quite a vulnerable state to be in, and then contrarily witness how much strength and empowerment and freedom it can also evoke.

Being only 24 years old, it seems like you’ve conquered the world already! When did you truly realize that your hobby could become your career?

Goodness, it certainly doesn’t feel like I’ve conquered the world! I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I want to do with my life! But I’m definitely on my way, which is nice. I actually originally wanted to go into medical school and become a surgeon, but there’s a number of elements that made me realize that through travel and photography (and writing), I was actually a lot happier and still able to contribute to the world, albeit in a different way. It’s been maybe a couple of years now that I’m pretty set on making a career out of this.

Do you sometimes feel stressed about the complexity of creating new things all the time?

Oh, absolutely! Creating is wonderful, but on the flip side it’s also a tough process, peppered with self-doubt, self-critique and judgment, moments where I feel like giving up, where I feel dwarfed and insignificant, where the striking works of other creatives often do more to discourage than to inspire me. I’ll try, bleed out though my camera, conflicted between emulating what I look up to and finding my own style, agonizing over colour treatments, going cross-eyed at my computer screen until I’m happy—and then, soon dissatisfied by my own work all over again, seeing all the ways I should’ve done better, sinking back into periods of creative hibernation. There are times where I begin to question the purpose of my work, of myself. Definitely big ups and downs when I’m creating [laughs].

You have some amazing pictures on your website, from landscape photos, such a house full of sand, or outstanding shots of people in India. Aren’t you scared sometimes to showcase the harsh reality of other people’s lives?

Hmm, yes and no. I definitely think that a decent chunk of my Instagram audience, for instance, doesn’t necessarily respond to these kinds of shots or find much interest in them. Quite often if I post an old travel portrait or a more obscure or photojournalistic shot, it’ll have a lot less engagement. But that’s understandable, as I think that a lot of people go to Instagram to look at the beautiful or the idyllic, not for a reality check. That somewhat makes me feel it’s even more important to show a vision of the world that’s balanced and real, even if that includes hardships sometimes. It’s interesting because on one hand, I do think I romanticize certain situations and create imagery that does appeal to everything being “pretty” or nice to look at, but as a human I’m also very aware that it’s not always real life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating beauty and showcasing it, but to me there’s a great deal of beauty to be found also in what’s raw and honest.

I’m inevitably experiencing the world and some of the tougher contexts I’ve been in through an incredibly privileged lens, and I like trying to focus on the human aspect, showing where beauty can also be found in hardships and making sure that I’m acting within the sphere of what’s culturally sensitive in other countries.

I think I also try to be aware or sensitive to my own cultural or socio-economic bias. I’m inevitably experiencing the world and some of the tougher contexts I’ve been in through an incredibly privileged lens, and I like trying to focus on the human aspect, showing where beauty can also be found in hardships and making sure that I’m acting within the sphere of what’s culturally sensitive in other countries. I think I might shoot differently if I were reporting on a war or working in the journalistic industry, as the purpose of my images would change.

What are the biggest influences in your art?

Anything and everything. Travel, definitely. I’m very inspired by nature, wildlife, landscapes, natural elements and by the world around me. I think that’s especially true when it comes to natural extremes and harsh landscapes. My relationships with my family and friends would lend a lot of emotion to my work, for sure. I’m quite a kinesthetic and tactile person, so I’m also influenced by touch and movement, whether literally in human bodies or in interactions with nature. I love to read, and I definitely developed a wild imagination as a kid, so whatever realms and make-believe lands I’ve delved into through the pages of books definitely have coloured the way in which I see the world. That, and the different perspectives books have brought me. I love films and the cinematic eye. There’s a number of photographers I’m terribly inspired by. There are definitely elements of my art that are influenced by youth culture and my own personal journey through adulthood. It’s really hard to say or to summarize! I think life, in general. Its energy, its vibrancy, its intensity, its highs and lows.

What do you love most about being a photographer, and what do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the job?

That’s a tough one. Definitely the people aspect of it. I love the connections I make through my camera, whether it’s with models I shoot or with strangers I pass in the street of a foreign country. I love the places it takes me to and the adventures it pushes me to take. So often I’ll organize a trip somewhere just because I want to capture a particular landscape or place or experience through my camera, where I might not have necessarily thought of doing it otherwise. I love the joy and happiness it can bring to others, to be documenting and making tangible memories. That through my photos, others can remember moments that meant something to them. I love what can be communicated through images, the stories that can be told and the dialogues it can create. I love how it pushes me to be creative and how much I need to adapt and flow, whether it be with changing light conditions, weather conditions, different personalities or problem solving when everything seems to go wrong. Appreciating both light and dark.

Challenging-wise—right now to be honest the most challenging thing is the business aspect of things! I don’t think I’m particularly business-minded, and I struggle to take care of the more marketing, budget-related parts of the job. I’m pretty terrible with attributing monetary value to things I create so I’m still trying to wrap my head around it and learn. I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way!

Of course, we’re all wondering—what’s next for you? What are you going to conquer next?

I’m working on my new blog and website at the moment, so that’s definitely in the works. (Such a slow process, but I’m excited!) Planning on doing a lot more writing in the future—that I’ll actually make public! I’ve got so many trip ideas in mind and so many projects I want to put into place and so many places I want to see that it feels a little overwhelming at times! The harsh reality is that I need the budget behind me to be able to do so, and the lifestyle I’ve had for the past couple of years isn’t one with financial security!

I have absolutely no idea what’s in store next for me, but I know I’m on the right path and I’m excited to see what happens.

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