Her first car was a minivan, a baby-blue one. A splash of hippy flowers decorated the sides, and it loomed proudly over Kim Leuenberger from its perch on one of her bookshelves. The miniature automobile, given to Kim by her parents while they were all on a family trip to Spain, was one of the most thoughtful gifts she’d ever received. It felt so adventurous, so free-spirited.
Ever since she first saw the film “Little Miss Sunshine,” Kim was obsessed with the idea of owning a minivan and embarking on an epic road trip. The sight of fresh tires hitting the open road has always invoked her sense of wanderlust. There’s just so much excitement associated with road trips — a new world of journeys waiting around every bend in the highway.
That baby-blue hippy van may have only been a model, but it helped Kim realize her dream.
After receiving a high-end camera for her 19th birthday, Kim started expanding her horizons as a photographer. On the first sunny afternoon in the spring of 2011, in a moment of creative boredom, she grabbed all of the old toys from her room and carried them down to the garden for an impromptu photo shoot. Her favorite photo to come out of that day was one of the blue van, situated next to a stuffed Paddington bear. She posted it on Instagram and found that her followers loved it just as much as she did.
Seven years, 50 cars, and hundreds of photos later, her miniature automobile photography has turned into a full-fledged project — though Kim is hesitant to call it that. Yes, she travels the world and constructs gorgeous, whimsical shots that place the cars amid breathtaking settings, but the word “project” evokes a distinct start and end. This isn’t something Kim ever really set out to do — it began as a way to escape the mundane struggles of her daily routine and re-enter a “bubble of playfulness,” and slowly became an integral part of her life.
Once she started photographing the cars, it wasn’t long before Kim was hauling her collection on flights to exciting locations. She grew up in Delémont, a little city in northwest Switzerland, located just an hour and a half from the majestic Bernese Alps. She had an adventurous spirit from a young age and lost herself in Jules Verne novels and strolls through the scenic Swiss valleys. The country’s quiet, sprawling landscape nurtured her passion for exploration, a passion that flourished with the help of her adventurous family.
“My parents weren’t the kind of people to lounge on deck chairs by the pool during the holidays,” she said. “For as long as I can remember, we’d go camping, rent cars, and always try to explore a new place we hadn’t been to in a long while. Most weekends, we’d explore our own backyard and go on hikes around the country — and during the holidays, we’d even drive or fly abroad.”
For Kim and her family, travel is a way of life. You can sense that adventurous upbringing in her work, her photos often drawing one’s focus away from the major landmarks and toward each location’s distinct atmosphere, texture, and spirit. Kim describes travel as a drug: the experience of discovering a new place is irresistible after it’s been tasted once. She takes her time going from destination to destination, knowing that it’s the places in between that provide the best surprises.
With each new travel experience, Kim’s photography has also evolved. Over the past seven years, she earned a degree in photography from the University of Arts London and, consequently, she’s grown more critical of her own work, pushing herself to craft more clever and inspiring shots. Instead of simply placing a car in a cool or unexpected spot, she’ll stop and ask herself: How did the car get here? Why did it stop here? And where was it going? Every image has a backstory, and if that story feels remotely forced, she won’t take the shot.
In the years since Kim started @travellingcars, her shoots have taken her to five different continents. She’s lived in Dublin, Tunisia, Turkey, and now London. She’s explored many countries and, like many travelers, she’s hesitant to pick a favorite.
But there is one trip that stands out.
Last year, for a partnership with Hertz, Kim set out on a road trip from Miami, Florida, to Los Angeles. As her car rolled into the American Southwest, Kim instantly grew enamored with the region’s enchanting desert landscapes. Red-rock mesas, vertigo-inducing canyons, and endless blue skies flew by as the car zoomed toward the setting sun.
Once again, it was like she was back in that little bubble of playfulness from her childhood — just her, the van, and the open road.
You can see more of Kim’s work by following her on Instagram at @kim.ou.