Nice, France - Travel photography by Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Me? A doctor married with kids by 25? That wasn’t me.

On the other hand, my own dreams scared the daylights out of me when I was about 11 or 12. They scared me because they were wild, idealistic, borderline delusional and as unattainable as dreams could be.

And they were many.

They seemed in direct contrast to what I was expected to be dreaming about as a Nigerian girl. Growing up in the 80s, my expected track was -> school -> advanced degree -> marriage -> children -> by 25. Back then, women who lived outside these parameters were seen as “not serious” while they were secretly revered by teenage girls like me who craved their unflinching independence.

I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to write worldly fiction. I wanted to be a geologist. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to do what I was passionate about instead of what I was expected to do. I wanted to be my most authentic self in a world that had predefined boxes which it constantly tries to stuff people in. I wanted to work for National Geographic because I thought they’d be that escape route to travel the world and document it through similar vividly stirring images I was soaking up from their pages.

My love for geography ran deep. It coursed through my veins. It was the only class I was willing to study for into the wee hours of the morning via candlelight while I was in boarding school in Lagos, Nigeria.

Not preparatory schools we see portrayed through the lens of the wealthy, but true grit boarding schools. Ones where you entered as a child and left as a resourceful independent adult ready to take on whatever the world throws at you – from water shortages and food rations to pushing yourself to constantly produce and excel in whatever you do.

But when I was done and ready for college at 15, I was scared. Scared because, even though boarding school had armed me with enough resilience to face challenges head on, I now had the opportunity to pursue those dreams with no clean blueprints. And in pursuing those dreams, I started to realize just how outlandish they seemed.

Did I honestly think National Geographic would ever come knocking? Me? Onòaràloláoluwa from Nigeria? How delusional did I think I was?

Like millions of photographers who’ve also flipped through those pages of that signature golden-yellow frame and have grown up with the brand all their lives, being a National Geographic photographer remained our collective delusional dream.

So I bailed and did what I was supposed to do. Study information technology. Become a programmer. Get whatever advanced degrees that would make Nigerian parents happy. And if there’s one more thing you should know about us Nigerians beyond our love for traditional parties and crashing each other’s weddings, we love our “degrees”. So when I got accepted into Oxford for a Masters degree in Computer Science at 19, my spot was held for two years but I just couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t secure any scholarships and ultimately had to let it go.

But deep down, my subconscious wanted to break free of that life. That destiny. I watched it float away to sea like a bobbing bottle with a simple crisp white note inside that read “What if?

It was at that moment that I began to realize that I wasn’t going to let degrees, career, other people’s definition of success, their expectations, money, status, or whatever predefined box define my worth as a person.

Approved NG Creative Logo
That dream to work with National Geographic wasn’t just a “status” symbol, but to see how far I could personally reach as an individual if I’m willing to put in the work. To trust that in whatever situation, environment, or career I find myself, I was going to treat each assignment and new task with a childlike enthusiasm and to never ever get jaded no matter how far I seemingly reach or how often I see my byline in there.

So 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.

Tears just streamed down. Like they’re doing now as I type this. He stood there in silence. In support.

He let me fully take it in. Four years ago, I gave up a promising consulting career to fully pursue this head on. I taught myself along the way. I trusted and doubted my intuition. I don’t have any specialist photography degrees or darkroom experience behind my name but I have heart. I have an idealist view of the world that believes that if I apply myself completely, professionally, and passionately to the pursuit of my dreams, they may very well start moving into view.

What’s next

Boarding School - Young girl - Lola Akinmade ÅkerströmBeing part of National Geographic Creative is definitely an honor as they represent roughly 300 photographers, only about 150 of which are still active. It’s not an agency you actually apply to. You get scouted to be represented.

This is the first step towards my goal of becoming an assignment photographer. You know, to one day move over to “that list” of a select few. But I know it’s going to take hard work and it’s going to take time.

I have a couple project ideas I’d love to work on with the Society. I want – need – more opportunities to prove that I can do each assignment. That I am a sponge who wants to continue learning, exploring, developing, and identifying my personal style. To grow and earn the right to be on that list of assignment photographers.

It is hard work. Hard, passionate, sweat shedding work I’m willing to do. Because when you learn to adapt at a very young age without electricity, with water shortages, with food rations, and bare basics in a boarding school yet are expected to ace your exams the very next day, you learn how to work hard in extreme personal conditions.

While I may never be a rock climber taking spectacular shots of other climbers off the face of Everest for National Geographic or a marine biologist diving with whale sharks to get that shot, I will always remain a human geographer connecting with people in my own little way.

Because photography is not just a deep seated passion for me. It’s one way I communicate and connect with others who seem so vastly different from me. It’s the way I respectfully reach into other cultures to find our similarities and those fleeting moments of absolute joy and contentment in being alive.

Those moments of existence that tells so much about a person, their character, their environment, and ultimately their soul. My goal as a photographer is to let you see the innate beauty in people and their lives without predefining the way you should view them and their environment.

I hated it when society tried to do it to me as a teenager and young adult when I was growing up and trying to discover myself. So as a photographer, it’s something I try to avoid with my subjects.

You know, stuffing them into predefined boxes.

In addition to working with and “mastering” natural light, this is my continued challenge as a photographer: To show humanity in those beautiful moments of contentment and to make the mundane interesting.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me this far and above all, I’m grateful to God whose grace, blessings, and mercy continually sustain me and fill me with joy and hope.

I’m extremely excited to see how this National Geographic relationship grows.

One I’ll never take for granted.

You have to have wild crazy dreams that scare the hell out of you, believe in your heart that they are attainable, and be brave enough to pursue them.

I will never forget these condescending words a complete stranger uttered as she looked me up and down after asking where I’d been published. We were both at a festival celebrating travel photography and storytelling.

“Really? I thought you had to be extraordinary to be published by National Geographic?”

  • Jennifer

    You’re awesome! Thanks for writing this…dreams we have can seem to so far away..until they happen. And then…the sky is the limit. The only things is, the sky was ALWAYS the limit…and.your writings are a great reminder. Thank you. And God bless you in every endeavour you set your faith to. May it ignite and set someone else who.dreams like you, afire. My first dream to travel to a distant land happened in 2003…and I created a documentary and took pictures, realizing for the first time I had the gift of photography. I still have dreams to travel and document. Would love to know how you remain inspired. And again, thanks for.sharing.

    • LolaAkinmade

      Thank you so much for your kind words Jennifer!! And may God bless you in every way as well as you pursue your own dreams to travel and document your experiences. When one truly finds what they love to do, staying inspired just becomes second nature.

  • I am fighting back tears…
    I clicked over here from Karen Walrond’s blog and after reading this amazing journey, I am encouraged and strengthened and yes, even, considering pushing even harder towards my dreams. It is so important to see and to hear from women who look like “us” and know that with God all things are possible. Congratulations, sister and I’ll be watching your climb to even greater things from afar.

    • Thanks so much Dina! Absolutely! With God all things are possible and I wear my faith proudly because I serve an amazing God. Please keep pushing towards your dreams and He will reveal which path(s) to choose.

  • Lyn

    Lola, I loved this post. How extraordinary to have your life long dreams being realized – and what a wonderful inspiration you are to me and others. I have followed your journey as you pursued your travel photography career and as a lover of photographs (especially those depicting the human condition), I have been moved by your exquisite captures. I was behind in my reading and noticed that you were in Toronto. I wish I had known — I would have loved to touched base. Stay the course Lola; I have a feeling the best is yet to be!

    • So great to hear from you Lyn and thanks for supporting this journey through the years. So bummed to have missed you in Toronto but hope our paths cross in person one of these days. Thanks so much my friend!

  • Congrats Lola. You inspire me through your writing. I feel so happy for you.

  • Wow!!
    What an inspiring story – And such sound advice to follow your heart.
    While you may forever be seeking to capture the light you can rest assured the light well and truly emanates through you and your work.
    Brilliant stuff 🙂

    • Thanks so much Linda! Truly honored and touched by your kind words.

  • Monica-USA

    Congratulations Lola!!! Now get out there and get back to work time to climb your next mountain!! 🙂

    • Haha! Yes, and thanks for being a constant support 🙂

  • Congratulations, Lola. Well done 🙂

  • I admire you not because of your amazing talents but because through your words I can feel your amazing spirit. You’re quite a woman I’m so happy for you.

    You go, woman!!!

    • Thank you so much for your support Felicia! Can say the exact same thing about you.

  • Germaine

    That last quote.. priceless. You are extraordinary! Always and in all ways! Don’t ever forget that!

    • Well, that’s one quote I’ll never forget in all its diminishing glory 🙂 Love you!

  • VERY well deserved. Congratulations! And thank you for sharing the story of your journey. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything so inspiring.

    • Thanks so much Kirsten! 🙂

  • Oyinkansola

    Onòaràloláoluwa – I absolutely love your full name. Thank you for sharing your story; it is one that I can relate to having been born in Lagos, Nigeria too. Your writing is inspiring. May God help you to fulfil every of your heart’s desires. I hope you don’t mind me sharing your link? Keep on believing, you can do all things through Christ who is your strength.

    • Thanks Oyinkansola 🙂 and Amen! I wish the same prayer for you as well. Absolutely, please feel free to share the link.

  • Love, love, love this post Lola. You are SUCH an inspiration, I am so happy to have shared a hug with you at TBEX. I’m hoping that your genius is contagious. 🙂

    • Thanks Dalene! Hope we cross paths again and have a proper sit-down chat.

  • I love this article! Your story seems similar to mine except I enjoy creative writing about international culture. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I hate the young people lose sight of their dreams at such a young age in an attempt to please the masses from parents, teachers, and society! This crushes creativity.

    • Thanks Shana and I definitely agree with you. It truly crushes creativity. I also understand that parents want the best for their children and that includes financial security. While I no longer make a “programmer’s income” and make about 40-50% of what I used to make, I’m a lot happier and more content now in many ways.

      Which is ultimately what parents want…for their children to be happy.

  • A wonderful post Lola. Thank you for sharing the journey and also for the inspiration. Extraordinary indeed!

    • Thanks Sandra. Definitely not extraordinary, but I’m sure that lady assumed just by physically looking at me without knowing or ever seeing my work that it was impossible. #Prejudice

  • So happy for you, Lola! We share a similar dream; but it’s ironic how we think of our own hopes and ideas as crazy and outlandish, while we have less doubt that our peers and folks we admire are capable of achieving them. I always, always knew your photos would end up in National Geographic. And that last quote is hilarious – but not surprising. 😉 Way to go, my friend! You continue to inspire me. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Lily and I have no doubt that you’ll realize all yours. You’re such a talent who continues to inspire me as well. You go for it and you go for it passionately and fully which I love and admire. Keep soaring Lily. So honored to be friends.

      • Aw, thanks my friend! So honored as well, and grateful I met you four and half years ago as you embarked on this journey. May you continue to be blessed in all ways!

  • Loved this Lola! I continue to be inspired by your images and words. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • You ARE extraordinary. You are an inspiration in your career and life. One of the best people I have ever had the opportunity to meet. And I don’t say that lightly. Congratulations on all your success. Looking forward to continuing to watch you and your work!

    • Oh, Nancy, thank you so much. Can wait to see you guys again! This means a lot to me. Thank you again!

  • This is absolutely beautiful, Lola. I, too, believe in living a life that is not predicated on other folks’ expectations. To do so, dishonors the person that you were meant to be.

    That person is borne in those childhood dreams and wishes that seem to have no road map except the one that you design.

    I enjoy watching you grow and achieve and I celebrate every milestone with you because you are living life on your own terms and determined to keep striving and moving forward even when small minded people refuse to.


    • Thanks so much Renee and we share similar outlooks on life in general. I love reading your philosophical posts. I’m so glad I met you in New York. I missed you in Toronto, and I’m looking forward to crossing paths again in the future.

      I’m proud of you and your work. Just keep staying true to yourself.

      • Thanks, Lola. I think that I enjoy writing for the soul as much as I do about travel. I wish that I had gone to Toronto now….unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it to Dublin after all due to my health. I had chosen Dublin over Toronto because I’d never been there. How’s that for a curve ball? I know that our paths will cross again and I’m looking forward to it.

        • Oh, Renee! Hope you’re feeling much better and not something long term. Dublin is tentative right now. Hope to see you soon again.

  • dahveed

    a huge stoke to follow your progression lola.

    • Gracias dahveed! I definitely learned a lot about storytelling from you.

  • That’s so awesome! Congrats! Growing up, I was a kid with energy and passion. Somehow I lost that. I became a different person and lost sight of dreams. I lived in a left brain world full of academia, getting my degree in accounting, and working in IT. Since that time, my travel writing and photography have taken off. And my right brain has said to my left brain “you’re not in control any more.” I’m learning to dream again.

    What an honor to be part of this National Geographic Creative group. I’m working hard on my photography. One day, I hope I get noticed as well. So excited for you that your dreams are coming true!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story Jeremy! I love this line -> “I’m learning to dream again”

      You will get noticed. Just believe it. It’s a matter of focusing on and developing those storytelling skills through your photography.

      • I’ve been using my photo skills to tell stories lately with my new travel photo of the week series. As much as I love photography, I stll love the written word. Sometimes writing is like looking at an empty canvas waiting for the words to the color the page. It can take a while. Then when it finally comes, brush strokes of poetry paint a masterpiece. It’s during those times, I know I’m a good writer – and even a good photographer too. For the last 3 weeks, I’ve been focusing on photos, stories, and photography tips from Paris and it’s some of the best fun I’ve had writing and editing photos.

        I’m still dreaming 🙂

        • I love your metaphor about writing being like an empty canvas. Being both – a good writer and good photographer – is a gift you should treasure. Not many people can do both very well.

  • This was a delight and inspiration to read, Lola. I love that you’ve reached your goal and you’re continuing to always strive for more. Thank you for your story.

    • Thanks Adam. I definitely don’t think I’ve reached or arrived at any goals but I’m slowly checking off personal milestones on this journey of life, and it’s all because of God’s grace

  • pam

    You ARE extraordinary. Her delivery was off, but she was right.

    • Well, thanks Pam! Much appreciated. While I certainly don’t consider myself that, her assumptions were insulting.

  • Wow! What a beautiful post, Lola. I’m so glad you never gave up on your dream and your destiny is finally unfolding. I’m so proud of you and the “heart” is always captured in your photos. xo!

    • Thank you so much Natalie. It’s been a long road but it’s only the beginning.

  • Abi

    Ah, that final quote is a classic. Many congratulations and keep on going!