On celebrating career milestones and inching closer to dreams

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?”