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‘Shadows define the light’: Photographer Me Ra Koh tells RootsTech audience to embrace their whole story

Discovering resiliency allows people to choose their own narrative for their family history, Me Ra Koh shares at RootsTech

Just as Me Ra Koh has risen from the ashes beyond a past of abuse, depression and other challenges, others can find healing as they recognize their own resiliency, the renowned photographer said to a huge audience on the main stage at RootsTech 2023 in Salt Lake City on March 3.

Koh shared some details of her life, including emotional abuse from her father, physical abuse from a college boyfriend, depression and time in a psychiatric ward. But after the death of her second baby, she hit a level of pain and sadness she said is hard to put into words. 

In her deep sadness, she was laying on the couch as her young daughter played on the floor. The afternoon sunlight came through and fell on the little girl in such a beautiful way, that Koh was struck by the thought that she wanted to learn how to take a photo of it, even though she had doubted in the past that she could even try photography.

“There comes a point in every single one of our lives the need for healing,” Koh said. “The need for freedom finally outweighs the voices of disqualification, the voices of fear and doubt.”

She bought a camera and taught herself how to take photos and photography began to heal her. 

“Photography relieved me, showing me that the shadows embrace the light. I don’t need to hide from the shadows, I don’t need to pack them away — the parts of those things in my life that I can feel ashamed about,” Koh said. “That’s actually what defines the light. Shadows define the light.”

Me Ra Koh speaks at RootsTech at the Salt Palace Convention center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 3, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Koh emerged to become a renowned photographer who has been featured on Oprah, “Live with Kelly and Ryan” and other television shows. 

She is a bestselling author, Disney Channel host, and one of one of the first two women photographers to be Sony-sponsored.

Koh and her husband formed the Fioria professional photography studio in Texas, where they tell stories of resilience through each picture. They interview each person and their family members before the photography session — often unearthing touching and poignant moments that then become treasured aspects of the person’s family history.

“What have you and your family overcome? What has risen from the ashes of your life?” Koh asked the audience. “When you look at the landscape of your life, do you see just the ashes of what has been burned down? Or do you see those things in you — those attributes and those qualities that nothing can take from you and nothing can destroy?”

Building resilience is all about choosing to tell one’s own story or one’s own narrative from life. And this allows people to determine how they see themselves and what they want to see in themselves. 

When Koh’s father came to visit her in Texas for Thanksgiving, she held a photo shoot with him as well. And in the answers to the questions from her staff, she and her father both used the word “bold” when describing each other — and she said she realized she learned boldness from her dad.

Me Ra Koh speaks at RootsTech at the Salt Palace Convention center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 3, 2023. A portrait of Koh and her father is displayed behind her. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The experience and the ensuing photographs went a long way toward healing their relationship, and she said she wants to see that image of them smiling together every day.

“Because it’s so easy to focus on the pain. It’s so easy to focus on the negative. But this (the joy) is true too. This is also part of my story, and this is the narrative I choose,” she said.

Koh emphasized that she was not saying people should put on rose-colored glasses and gloss over all parts of their family history that are disappointing or discouraging. She was saying the exact opposite — that shadows define the light. 

“I give you permission to embrace the shadows and let the light be that much more accurate for you, so that when you are older someday and even when you are gone and your family generations from now is doing the research and the history about who they are and where they come from, that they will find the pain and they will see the things that were hard, but they will also see a story of resilience, a story of hope and forgiveness,” she said.

Choosing one’s narrative means becoming like a phoenix from the ashes. Embracing all the good and all the bad, Koh concluded, is the most powerful story people can give to the future.

Me Ra Koh, center, is presented with a scroll of her family tree at RootsTech at the Salt Palace Convention center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 3, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

More about RootsTech 2023

RootsTech is an annual family history and technology conference sponsored by FamilySearch, which is a nonprofit genealogical organization operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

RootsTech 2023 kicked off on March 2 and goes through March 4 in Salt Lake City. After two consecutive years of being held completely online, this year’s conference has events both in-person and online.

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