From the Lab to Labradors: Finding Fulfillment Behind the Lens

Jenny KarlssonJenny Karlsson is a pet photographer based in Pittsburgh. She shared her professional and personal journey from scientific research to photography with Career 2.0.

I’ve always loved nature and animals. It’s not surprising I guess as I was born and raised in a small village not far from Bjurholm, in northern Sweden, where I spent my weekends and summers working on my family’s dairy and potato farm. I left the farm for the lab when I went to study Biomedical Laboratory Science at Umea University and worked as a medical technologist analyzing patient samples in hospitals.

But my heart was pulling more towards the path of research and exploration and so, when I was invitedDog Running to spend the summer after graduation at the Center for Biologic Imaging at the University of Pittsburgh, I simply couldn’t refuse. Once in Pittsburgh, I was offered a full-time position as a research specialist taking images, making movies of cells and tissues, and quantitating the response to different compounds.

While working full-time in the lab, I enrolled in a part-time MBA program at Katz Graduate School of Business with the idea that I would work for a microscope manufacturer or software company once I graduated, as others in the lab had previously done. I took up photography as a much-needed creative outlet when I wasn’t working or studying. I was mostly photographing still life and participating in photography forums such as Flickr until I came across a lifestyle dog photographer in Seattle … it blew my mind that pet photography could be a career.  When I told my boss I had found my dream job, unsurprisingly she looked at me skeptically. And, even though I shelved the idea for a while, my dream remained constant.

Hugging a DogInitially I started assisting local wedding photographers on weekends, becoming increasingly stronger in my technical abilities as a photographer and developing my vision as an artist and storyteller. About four years ago, I began volunteering at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, taking photos of dogs for their adoption profiles. It felt amazing to use my skills to give back while gaining valuable experience.

When I wasn’t working or studying, all my free time was given over to photography and building a client base. The demands on my time were hard as I also had just met my husband-to-be. After graduation, I spent most evenings and weekends working on my photography business. I continued working at the lab, where I’d happily been for a decade, until last year when I finally made the leap to photography full-time.

“No matter how much you plan and prepare for it, you’ll never be completely ready or find the perfect moment to quit your job. At some point you just have to jump and trust that you’ve put in place a good foundation.”

In the months before quitting, my husband and I went over all our personal expenses and reduced our spending, treating my salary as if it didn’t exist. We saved as much as possible so that, when I finally left, we had at least four months of living expenses in the bank. This really gave me confidence to make the move.

Although my ultimate dream was to become a pet photographer, I didn’t believe it would be possible to Couple with Dogsmake a living if I specialized in animals. Talk about mental roadblock. Although I photographed pets, I also took family portraits and covered weddings and bar mitzvahs. Eventually I ended up with a pinched nerve, and the joint in my thumb was so out of alignment that I couldn’t even lift my Shepherd-Akita Alice’s water bowl. The business I had created allowed no time for photographing pets, and my body was literally screaming at me that something needed to change.

With the help of an amazing business coach (shout out to Emily Levenson of Propelle), I started re-shaping my business, changing my message, and aligning my passion with why I had started my business in the first place. It was incredibly liberating to narrow my focus and truly speak to my target client. At the same time, it was very difficult to let go of my beliefs of what it would take to make the jump. In the end, I did it. It was almost a harder thing to do than leaving the lab.

Jenny KarlssonFollowing my passion rather than others’ expectations of what I should do was definitely the right decision. It can be challenging to have to self-promote constantly (this goes against the Scandinavian in me), but it’s so much fun when you find your “tribe” who value what you do. I love being in the driver’s seat, deciding how to run my business, what to say yes and no to, and how I grow as an individual, artist, and entrepreneur. It’s also hard work. Even though I have more time to devote to my business, I never feel like I’ve done enough in a day. I try not to work at night and don’t always succeed, but I live more intentionally now to make life more than work.

And in the end, saying I’m a pet photographer always results in interesting conversations. People want to know whether I’ve photographed snakes, spiders or the like. For the record, I hate snakes and only photograph dogs, cats, and rabbits … well at least for now as I recently discovered that one of my neighbors has a pet pig, and I am working up the courage to ask if I can photograph it. Liz if you are reading this, what do you say?

Check out Jenny’s awesome website: Jenny Karlsson, Pet Photography.

Tips from Jenny Karlsson
  • Design a life and business that makes you happy. Choose to do the things that are aligned with who you are as a person, and what excites you. If you’re not having fun in your business, why do it in the first place?
  • Run the numbers and figure out how much you need to cover your personal and business expenses for a certain amount of time. Equipped with this knowledge you can more confidently make the jump and go for your dream. The day may be closer than you think.
  • No matter how much you plan and prepare for it, you’ll never be completely ready or find the perfect moment to quit your job. At some point you just have to jump and trust that you’ve put in place a good foundation.
  • Don’t get caught in the comparison trap, everyone has their own struggles. Look at the big picture and be happy with what you’ve created.
  • Surround yourself with a diverse group of driven women in different industries and form a mastermind. Create an environment that fosters honest conversations, allows for vulnerability, and provides support and accountability. It’s hard to be a business owner, and it is immensely important to have a sounding board to share the wins, struggles and question marks with. Your spouse/partner will thank you!
  • Schedule regular self-care dates in whatever form you prefer. The body has a tendency to hold a lot of stress, and it is important to be kind to it and take care of it, otherwise burnout is just around the corner.
  • There is always more to do, and it is easy to sink into the “not enough” trap. Focus on celebrating the wins, and build momentum one day at a time.

Lola Akinmade Åkerström: The GeoTraveler Who Finally Found Her Niche

Lola_Pic2As 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.

10629461_817831601582971_7283979387677093891_o“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

Sugarcane harvester in Mauritius
Sugarcane harvester in Mauritius

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.Casablanca
  • 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.