Lola Akinmade Åkerström is a writer and photographer who has reported from more than 80 countries. In 2021 she released her first novel, her second will be released this month.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria before moving to the US to study and then settling in Stockholm, Sweden, Lola speaks to us from the latest location in her many travels, Mongolia.
Describing her work as a way of making people feel seen, her photography and writing showcase a strong sense of not just place, but of people in place; her images are full of animated portraits, and her novels (to date) follow the lives of three Black women as they navigate various aspects of life in Sweden.
Being named a Hasselblad Heroine, awarded the Bill Muster Travel Photographer of the Year, and recognised as one of the Most Influential People of African Descent (MIPAD) are just a few of the accolades that Lola holds, and she also runs photography experiences around the world which she says, “help the next generation of travel storytellers put the heart back into the craft.”
Here, Lola takes us behind the scenes of her work and life, telling us about her inspirations, motivations, challenges, and more.
What came first: photography or writing?
Writing came first. I’d always loved fiction writing as a pre-teen and well into my teenage years, filling notebooks upon notebooks with short stories. Photography came along because I used to be an oil painter and took photos of scenes I wanted to paint when I got back from trips.
How did you expand from writing to photography? And what motivated you to pursue both?
I consider myself a storyteller and use whatever platform I need to best express what I want to say. Sometimes I need the verbosity that only writing can provide. Other times, a single powerful image is all I need to say what I want to say visually.
How would you describe your writing style?
My writing style is raw, real, and quite transparent. It is accessible with an undertone of melancholy, and often veers towards the dramatic.
And your photography style?
Vibrant with lots of contrast and filled with hope and joy. I often try to photograph people so their spirits and personalities come across in their eyes and dispositions.
Have your life experiences influenced your work?
Absolutely. My writing and photography are the visual manifestation of the words “I see you”. I want people to feel seen, heard, and acknowledged through my work. This was something that was denied to me a lot when I was growing up and navigating a new society, so it became my life’s work.
What has been your biggest ‘wow’ moment in your career so far?
There are so many incredible ‘pinch me’ moments so far that I’m grateful for. From appearing in vignettes as a National Geographic photographer to getting some incredible book deals, and being handpicked by Hasselblad to be one of their Heroines. However, the biggest ‘wow’ moment of my career so far is currently embargoed as of this interview.
If you could tell us one thing about your career, what would it be?
That I created space for people to feel seen, acknowledged, and represented, while giving them grace to be fully human.
How do you start your days?
I try to start with some alone time – prayer, reading, and gratitude journaling. I do need to add consistent morning exercise to that mix.
What’s your go-to uniform?
I love boots. So you’ll always find me in some form of boots – from low heeled to high heeled.
Describe your workspace:
It varies. I mostly work from home. Sometimes from cafes, co-working spaces and, when travelling, in lounges.
Identify something in your workspace that’s special to you:
I actually have a large black notebook next to me whenever I’m working. That’s where my ideas are born, written down, fleshed out, and begin to take tangible shape.
Work takes you most frequently to…
I travel quite a bit, but lately work has been taking me back to Croatia and the Dalmatian Coast.
What are your workplace essentials?
A large mug of tea, my black notebook and wireless headphones because I love working to music. I’m pretty simple.
What time of day are you at your most productive?
Very early in the morning between 4AM and 6AM. I can burst out 1,200 word opinion pieces in a single hour between that time. My mind is clear, crisp, and ready to flow.
What’s your go-to-lunch order?
All sorts of Asian cuisine.
What is the most rewarding part of the job?
Getting letters from complete strangers saying how a phrase, a book, an article, or a photograph I’ve taken has changed their life. What a gift and privilege that is.
And the most challenging?
Meeting closed doors when you know you need to be sitting at that table.
If you were to write a two-line job spec for yourself, it would read as follows…
Lola stays busy creating cultural connection through her work so we all feel seen, acknowledged, and valued for who we already are.
What first sparked your interest in photography?
It was actually a means to an end. I was an oil painter and simply took photos of scenes I wanted to paint. Then after a while I felt like I was duplicating effort and began exploring photography as a new medium of expression.
And in writing?
I’ve always been drawn to the complexities and nuances of culture and how they manifest themselves within relationships, so this is what I explore in my writing.
Do you have a mentor or inspirational figure that has guided or influenced you?
I have several mentors who are also dear friends. Leigh Shulman is my developmental editor and writing mentor, and Yomi Abiola is a guiding light in helping me fully step into my power. Oprah Winfrey continues to be the ultimate inspiration of what it means to fully show up as yourself and thrive for it.
What were some hurdles you had to overcome in the early days?
Being a Black African travel photographer and having to compete in a space dominated by rugged white guys who female editors were quick to fawn over even though my portfolio was comparable and in many cases, stronger. It is still my challenge today.
What’s the most important work-related lesson you’ve learned?
It’s actually a proverb in my native Yoruba language: “The sky is big enough for all birds to fly.” I carry an abundance mindset and collaborative spirit in all I do work wise. The only competition I have is myself so I can evolve to a higher version holistically.
The best advice you’ve ever received?
In this era of entitlement, I always remember the wise words of Barbara Hillary, the first African-American woman to have reached both the North and South Poles while in her 70s. During an interview, she said “The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.” I keep this in the back of my mind and this is what hones my grit and resolve in whatever I’m doing.
What are you working on right now?
My third novel, launching more photo experiences around the world, some new book proposals, and loads more under wraps.
What’s next for you?
I truly don’t know and that’s what I find so exciting in this new stage of my life. I am giving myself space and freedom to evolve creatively in whichever direction life wants to take me.
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