As a young girl, Lola Akinmade Åkerström had dreams, big dreams that wandered far from the traditional path she was expected to follow as a girl in her native Nigeria. “I wanted to write fiction, to be a geologist, an artist. I wanted to do what I loved instead of what I was expected to do. But mostly I wanted to work for National Geographic because I thought it would be a means to travel the world and document it like the vividly stirring images I was soaking up from the magazine’s pages.”
Her love of geography saw her through a “true grit” boarding school in Lagos, Nigeria, where as a student she experienced food rations by day and stayed up nights studying cities and their hinterlands via candlelight. On finishing school at 15, she moved to the US to stay with extended family. She pushed aside dreams of working for the famous yellow-framed travel magazine, pursuing instead the practical field of information systems – a more “stable” choice in the eyes of at least her parents – at a local community college before transferring to the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).
Graduating at 19 years, Akinmade Åkerström won a spot to study for a Master’s degree in Computer Science at the UK’s prestigious Oxford University but lack of funding barred her way and so she headed into the job market as a programmer, specializing in geographic information systems (GIS) – developing and integrating applications that work with interactive maps – and her old love, geography. She later received a Master’s in Information Systems from UMBC.
Photography and writing remained a serious hobby and, in 2002, she volunteered with the Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in Fiji as a field journalist, covering the route and the teams as they raced through adventurous courses.
For the next ten years, Akinmade Åkerström worked as a GIS programmer and system architect for Ohio-based Woolpert, a design, geospatial, and infrastructure management firm. “I really enjoyed my work but honestly I felt no true passion for the job. It was not what I felt I was put on this earth to do.”
To offset that feeling and bring some balance to her life, on the side of working full-time she started freelancing, building her portfolio as a writer and photographer. She was able to stretch her vacation days while working fulltime to travel as far and wide as possible. She also created an umbrella company called Geotraveler Media to house all her activities, including web design and social media. The client base and bylines slowly started to accumulate as she submitted to airline magazines, travel magazines and blogs, lifestyle journals, and newspapers. “I was never afraid of rejection because what was the worst that could happen? Either they said no or completely ignored my pitch. I never let that dampen my spirit and just forged on.”
The final springboard for change came in 2009 when Akinmade Åkerström relocated to Sweden with her husband whom she met in 2006. It was a now-or-never turning point. She gave up a stable, well-paid career as a programmer to become a photojournalist but, with numerous writing and photography accolades under her belt, felt confident she was making the right choice.
“My main concern was having to start from scratch again and prove to people that I knew what the heck I was doing and talking about. Some people understood it. Many thought I was just pursuing my ‘hobby’ and didn’t take me seriously even after I sold my condo and gave up the corporate life. Before becoming my biggest fan and advocate now, my mother used to tell me: ‘If people ask you what you do and you say you are a photographer, remind them that you have an advanced degree as well!!’ Of course she was coming from a place of concern and now in hindsight, she knows it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t live my life to please others.”
And then the big day came.
“When my first batch of photos were finally loaded under my name on National Geographic Creative, I called out to my husband to come see. ‘See! See…’ but the words couldn’t make their way out. They were choked by tears that this could finally be happening. That this long held dream of being a National Geographic photographer could actually be unfolding before my eyes.”
Not a typical photo agency, National Geographic Creative actually seeks out and approaches photographers. It represents roughly 300 photographers, only about 150 of whom are active.
Akinmade Åkerström’s photography finds beauty in the mundane. Her work has appeared in numerous media, including National Geographic Traveler, BBC, CNN, Lonely Planet, The Guardian, Travel + Leisure, and National Geographic Channel. She is the editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm – an editorial site which encourages travelers to explore Stockholm deeper and more slowly
She is featured in a 1-minute vignette about South Africa called “Through The Lens” and has volunteered as a photojournalist with the Swedish Red Cross, World Hope International, and CHIEF, a Nigerian-based NGO promoting grassroots health development, HIV/AIDS awareness, and the empowerment of women.
Five years into her new career, the confident 36-year-old considers herself blessed. She is working toward becoming an assignment photographer, to move over to what she refers to as “that list” of a select few talents. But she knows it will take hard work and time and is constantly exploring and evolving her own personal style of “a human geographer who connects with people”.
“Photography is a way I communicate and connect with others who seem so vastly different from me. It enables me to reach into other cultures respectfully to find our similarities and those fleeting moments of absolute joy and contentment in being alive. I still have many dreams for my career, but I’m grateful for my personal freedom and the opportunity to keep traveling. For me, success is not about financial achievements or finally breaking into some high status clique, but it’s about having the flexibility to live life on my own terms and in a way that’s emotionally and spiritually fulfilling.”
Akinmade Åkerström’s Tips on Following Your Passion:
- Life really is about committing 100% to moving to the next stage. You can’t move on in life if you are constantly looking back.
- There is a thin line between following your passions and being selfish. If you have other important responsibilities you’ve accumulated over the years, find ways of balancing them while trying to follow your dreams. Get rid of unnecessary responsibilities.
- Learn to say no. You’ve got to pause, reassess your life, relationships, and projects, and then take proactive steps towards decluttering your life so you can actually start focusing on what you really need to be doing.
- Sometimes leaping out in absolute faith regardless of the outcomeis the answer; trust that every risk taken is a natural selection process; unveil true friends and those who are willing to go that extra mile on your behalf.
- Hard work will only get you so far and we truly can’t reach where we want to go in life without others. We need their support and love to carry us through those last few steps. We need tolet go and be truly vulnerable.
- Follow your heart. While you may not be able to successfully communicate the importance of your passion to others sometimes, that doesn’t make it any less real or important to you. Don’t expect everyone to be excited about your passion as you are.
- Do not fear rejection. You will meet it several times along the way when following your passion. How you handle rejection will only build character and make you more tenacious and resilient in the pursuit of what you are meant to be doing.