“Everyone has a story, and I want to help people tell their stories without putting them in a box.”
This belief is what drives freelance photojournalist and writer Lola Akinmade Åkerström. Her quest to tell stories using words and pictures has taken her around the world to its most luxurious places and to many of its poorest regions. But no matter where she is, her goal remains the same: to showcase people in their most positive light. “It is important to me that anyone who views my photos sees the person in the photo and their humanity first,” Akinmade Åkerström explains. “When you see their humanity, you can’t use the environment to judge them. You see them.”
Akinmade Åkerström’s work has been featured in National Geographic, BBC, CNN, Lonely Planet, The New York Times, and The Guardian amongst others. However, the self-trained photographer is loathe to call herself a master. “After seven years doing this work, I’m not an expert,” she says. “I take on the attitude of a learner. There is always something I can learn.”
This is a humble stance for a woman who has won numerous awards for her work. Her success and continuous growth can be attributed to her skill, good attitude, modest disposition, and confidence, and Akinmade Åkerström isn’t done yet. She is working on new goals including writing books, creating resources and, of course, more travel—all while being a married mother to a 3-year-old daughter and a 6-month-old son. She spoke with mater mea about how she got her start, and how she continues to do the work she loves with a family.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a curious person, and innately curious about others. I grew up in Nigeria, and moved to the United State for college when I was 15. My curiosity grew out of my experience living in the United States; people were not truly interested in others enough to listen to them. People were okay with defining me, and it grew my desire to get to know people without dismissing or defining them. This translates into a lot of the photography and writing I do.
How did you get your start in photography and writing?
I am in the creative industry, but this is not my background. My dream as a child was to work in the geography industry, either as a geography teacher, a geologist, or something along those lines. In college, I studied information systems, programming, and computer systems. I graduated college and worked as a programmer and [later] as a system architect.
The trigger happened in 2002. Eco-Challenge was producing an expedition race of the same name for top athletes around the world to compete in a 300-600 kilometer [187-373 mile] race. The show was produced by the same people who did Survivor. They needed volunteers to help with the race in Fiji, and I signed up for the media team. My team was in charge of writing articles [about the race]: we wrote press releases, team profiles, and daily news updates. We travelled with the team during key points in the journey, and wrote their stories and about their experiences on the race. It was a wonderful experience, and made me realize I could actually travel and write about my experiences or about the places I visit while making it exciting. When I got back, I thought, “I need to travel more”; I started a blog and went for it.
I had begun writing, taking pictures, and sending out pitches in 2007; in 2009 I had enough traction and could actually do it full time [so] I quit my job. I decided it was then or never; I’d rather be happy living a starving-artist life than be an unhappy programmer with lots of money.
Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to go in your career?
I’m not a good planner; I tend to go with the flow. However, within that flow, I have a bit of organization and strategy. I knew I wanted to travel, and I also knew I wanted to find a way to travel and make it a lifestyle. My career has been evolving, but it hasn’t always evolved.
When I was younger, I dreamt of being a part of the National Geographic team. In 2013 I got signed on to be represented by them, but my goal is to [join] the seasoned photographers who have been part of the organization for over a decade. Right now, my work goes into their image collection. I have an ongoing open-ended assignment letter to keep shooting for them, and these images are often sold to their various magazines [and] other editorial and commercial clients. However [if I were a seasoned photographer], I’d get called up to go camp somewhere with Tibetan monks and tell their story. [I] still get assignments, but the [older photographers] are usually called up first. The key is I’m already inside the [organization].
My writing is constantly evolving, and I have a long way to go. I do travel writing—social and lifestyle—and I want to keep doing that, but [write] more narratives. I also want to publish books. I have many dreams. I’m taking it one day at a time while also listening to God’s voice and direction.
How do you approach decision making and risk-taking in your business and career?
It all comes back to my family and what’s best for them. When I had my first child, I had an internal struggle. As a first-time parent, I didn’t know what to expect, and I also had a career I did not want to lose. For most first-time parents, there is a lot of struggle, because you think you can do everything you did when you had no children and still take care of your child. However, when I had my second child, it became a lot easier, because I acknowledged my priorities—I am a mom, and everything else is secondary. When I make a decision, I have to think about my family. It’ll be great to take on a trekking assignment in Indonesia, but my kids are my priority. It wasn’t an issue before I got married or had kids. My daughter, who is 3, has been to over 15 countries with me. I have carried her along and it is feasible to do that, but it required a bit more planning.
My son is 6 months, and we just got back from his first transatlantic trip. The big difference [after having kids] is not that I or we can’t go to Indonesia, but I have to plan and make sure everyone is happy, including my spouse.
How do you handle the rejections and failure?
I have had my share of failures and rejections. In 2011, I began publishing an annual “Pitching Chart” blog post where I categorize all the pitches I made the previous year, and I create a pie chart to visually showcase the assignments, rejections, and no-callbacks. It gives you a glance into my progress as a freelancer. My best strategy for handling rejection is to send a pitch and forget about it. I don’t sit by my computer biting my nails, waiting for a response. I get busy with other ideas and projects, and I mentally disconnect from a pitch when I send it out.
When a pitch comes back as a rejection, I don’t take it personally. I try to understand why; it might be a bad pitch or maybe the pitch did not work for them. It is also important to understand how the industry works; your pitch may work, but they may not have a budget for it. I also do my best to stay connected even with rejection. I ask questions, like “Are you interested in other ideas?” “What about this idea or angle?” In addition, I try to pitch often, because it increases my chances of getting a yes. I don’t make a clean break until the editor stops responding. (Laughs).
What advice would you give to mater mea readers who want to build a career in the photojournalism industry as a writer or photographer?
Study the industry, because it is fluid and dynamic. Don’t quit your day job yet, but start building up a portfolio. Start downsizing your life. You can’t be a generalist anymore; you have to have a niche. Start with something you really love and stay targeted—do it well, you can always add stuff later. You have to be really passionate about it, because it gets rough and if you are not passionate, you will not be resilient.
Be willing to wear many hats within that specific niche you’ve defined for yourself. You can’t pick one thing anymore. You can’t just be a blogger; you need to diversify. If you want to work for yourself, you have to create more than one income stream.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
I started my freelance career under my maiden name, Lola Akinmade. When I got married, I thought, “Well, I’m a feminist, I’m not going to change my name. I’m building my career under my name.” Then I realized marriage is a 100% partnership, and it’s easy to forget the partnership when all the decisions I was making were under my name. My husband is the one encouraging me, pushing me, and rocking the baby when I have to get work done. I decided to take my husband’s name, because I love him and also because it is a subconscious reminder to me it is not always about me. There is an Åkerström person who has to buy into all my decisions. Coming to terms with that was a challenge for me.
What has been the best moment of your career so far?
Recording [a] video in South Africa with National Geographic for their channel was a good moment for me. It was a crazy experience and watching it was crazier. When my name came up in the beginning as a contributing photographer, I was like “What?” (Laughs) That was one highlight, and that project led them to sign me. I still have a long way to go. There are many little moments of joy, like when I get something published as a freelancer.
How has having children impacted your decision-making process?
The biggest thing with [having] children is your time is no longer yours. I have to choose who I spend my time with. I can’t spend time with clients who are wasting my time, because I can spend that time with my children. In the beginning, I worked with anybody and did everything. Now, if you are the best magazine in the world and you are wasting my time and taking it away from my kids, then maybe it is not the right partnership at the moment. My dream might have to take the backseat for a bit, because I have a family. This messed me up mentally, because I thought I was sacrificing. I have had to go back to this quote, “There is a time and season for everything.” Even though there are some really cool projects I want to work on now, I may have to delay them. There is a thin line between chasing your dreams and being selfish. I have children, and I’m still responsible to them while still having bills to pay.
I’m also extremely blessed and grateful to be living in the most feminist of countries—Sweden. My husband is currently on six-months paid paternity leave, and if he needs to take an extra year, he can. I always say behind every [married] feminist is a much stronger man who is comfortable in himself to let his wife shine without feeling threatened. I live in a country where women’s rights are off the chain. It is feminist and liberal, and a good place to build my career surrounded by my children.
What perspective or example do you hope to impart on your children through your work?
I want my children to know that I didn’t lose myself. I get tired of women who say, “I gave up my entire life for my children.” Children can sense when their parents are not living out their passions. It is important for children to know and sense their mother’s drive and also know the things she is good at and loves to do. I don’t want my children to grow up with the attitude or idea that work is just paying bills. Work should be fun, and it is about building a lifestyle. I could have stayed a programmer making lots of money, but not doing what I love even though I was a good programmer. It’s important for kids to see their parents doing what they love to do.