Born in Nigeria, educated in the States and now based in Sweden, Lola Akinmade Akerström’s passion for travel is deeply rooted through her experiences growing up. Recognized as one of this year’s Hasselblad Heroines, the award-winning, storytelling photographer’s journey into the industry wasn’t the easiest.
There’s no doubt Lola Akinmade is a successful woman. She is the best-selling author of Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well and her photography has been published by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, The New York Times and many more.
As a black woman, it’s always been Lola’s mission to make black people more visible in the travel photography community and in doing so she has become a brand in herself. Lola has dared to explore other creative mediums and has found success, a way to express herself and a way to inspire others.
In light of her being chosen as a 2022 Hasselblad Heroine, we wanted to talk to Lola about her path into photography and what this recognition means.
How old were you when you first took up photography?
I actually got into photography as a means to an end in my twenties. I used to be an oil painter, so when I traveled, I took photos of scenes, objects, and places I wanted to paint once I got back.
After a while, I felt like I was duplicating effort and decided to explore photography as another form of visual expression. My past life as an oil painter can be seen in the way I edit my photos as well. Very vibrant with a lot of contrast and shadows. Once I started freelancing as a travel writer, travel photography become the perfect complement to my storytelling.
Who or what inspired you to do so?
I often say, sometimes our creative voices are born from sources of our pain. For me, my creative voice as a photographer came from isolation. When I moved from Nigeria to the US at 15 years to start college, society had already crafted my narrative on my behalf and wanted to push me into predefined boxes of what I could and could not do. So, I became isolated a lot because I wasn’t fitting into any of these societal boxes.
Often, we as humans isolate and exclude what we do not understand. That is why fostering cultural connection and creating more understanding unpins my storytelling. My environmental travel portraits are the visual representation of the words, I SEE YOU.
I am inspired by many fellow women travel photographers including Nori Jemil, Yulia Denisyuk, and Lebawit Lily Girma, just to name a few. One of my favorite travel photographers is Mitchell Kanashkevich because of the ethereal way he makes natural light an equally important subject in his images.
Beyond travel, the incredible Black Women Photographers (BWP) community introduces me to more wonderful photographers in other industries who inspire me.
Do you have a favorite photo or project you’ve worked on?
I’ve been fortunate to travel on assignment for the likes of National Geographic Traveler and collaborate with commercial brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Electrolux, to name a few. One of my favorite projects was working on the Dove Project #ShowUs global campaign in partnership with Getty Images to redefine what real beauty looks like and uplift women of all shapes, sizes, and color.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
To keep trusting your vision and developing your own visual voice. Don’t focus on what you think publications or other people want you to photograph. Start developing your own eye, style, and approach to photography. The right partners, collaborations, and brands will find you. Technique comes later. Focus on your talent and hone your own way of processing the world as a travel photographer first.
What does it mean to you on being chosen as a Hasselblad Heroine?
It is an incredible honor to be a Hasselblad Heroine. Beyond aligning with a brand I admire and respect, I now have access to a support system, community, and resources I’ve always craved as a self-taught travel photographer. This next-stage career highlight will provide much-needed support to keep honing my unique voice as a travel photographer.
What has been your biggest obstacle in getting to where you are?
One of the biggest challenges has been getting my portfolio in front of photo editors, many of which have a subconscious bias or clear preference for white male travel photographers.
Oftentimes, I get the question “Did you take that?!” while my male colleague gets a “Wow! You took that!”. So, I’ve essentially had to work twice as hard with limited support while my colleagues of similar caliber have been getting various brand support for years.
My work as a travel photographer has also been about breaking those biases and stereotypes while creating unique images from my travels and sharing my own way of interacting with the world through photography.
That is what I continue to do because travel is the avenue I have chosen to live out of my passion for cultural connection.