Interview with travel photographer and writer Lola Akinmade Åkerström: ‘Expats are keen observers’

| December 4, 2014 More

Lola Akinmade Åkerström, a Nigerian-American based in Stockholm, Sweden, is an award-winning travel photographer and writer. Her work has appeared in major international publications, such as National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, CNN, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others. She is also featured on National Geographic Channel in a South African vignette called “Through the Lens.”

As editor-in-chief of travel website Slow Travel Stockholm, she encourages in-depth exploration of the city through articles, photo essays, videos, and event recommendations.

I met Lola at a travel conference in Canada, where she gave a well-received presentation on photography. I wanted to know more about her storytelling approach, most memorable assignments, and what role being an expat plays in her projects. Here’s what she had to say.

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

At what moment did you realize that you could combine your three passions – travel, photography and writing?

I’ve always been a writer since my pre-teens when I used to write dozens of short fiction. I also come from a family of travelers with an affinity for the geosciences so I’d always been infected with wanderlust. Photography came because, as an artist, I used to paint from quick snapshots I took while traveling.

The moment I realized I could combine all three came in 2012 when I worked with an expedition race as a field reporter in Fiji. I took photos, wrote up short travel narratives, interviews, and press releases, as well as traveled all over and explored Fiji deeply.

How have your experiences living as an expat shaped your writing and photography?

I often say that expats are keen observers. Mostly because they inhabit that space between mere tourist visiting a place and a born-and-bred local. So expats are good at observing the nuances locals often take for granted. This directly translates into my writing and photography. Because of my innate curiosity, I’m always observing, always listening, and always isolating.

What do you try to convey through your images?

I try to capture those fleeting moments of joy and contentment. When people and moments just exist without pre-judgment and prejudice. I try to make the mundane interesting and worth taking a second look at.


Village of Gratteri, Sicily


Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

What are your favorite subjects to photograph?

I love working with and interacting with people in their natural day-to-day lives as well as environmental portraits of food and the process. I also love studying how light interacts with its environment.

Tell us about your most memorable photo shoot.

I have so many memorable shoots that it’s hard to be superlative about it all but I would count my brief time in South Africa as some of my most unforgettable moments. The impressions, the experiences, the people, smells, sounds, culture – all rich, all memorable – have left so many imprints on me.


Young girl in Lagos, Nigeria

What advice do you have for travel photographers who are just starting out?

It’s a rough industry right now but that doesn’t mean you should be discouraged. Above all, be passionate about photography because there will be long spells of frustration. Start building your own exposure and portfolio. Work on personal projects. Don’t wait for someone or some iconic brand to come calling. Start blazing that trail yourself. The right people will come knocking at the right time.

What equipment do you travel with?

I usually travel with my Nikon D700 (full frame) and two lenses – 24-70mm and 50mm. Depending on what I’m trying to accomplish or the nature of the job, I can take an extra camera body (my backup Nikon D300) and a wide angle lens.

What projects do you have in the works?

I’ll be working on more personal portraiture projects in 2015. I’m also in the process of building and uploading thousands of images into my image bank, as well as my Nat Geo collection. I’ve got lots of ideas for local human stories in Sweden as well as some travel on the horizon. So in other words, I’m just going with the flow.


Child’s play in Peru


When asked about a dream photo shoot, Lola couldn’t pinpoint just one. “So many,” she said. “From island hopping around the South Pacific, documenting the unique yet similar cultures amongst the Islanders, to following a reindeer migration with the indigenous Sami in Sweden.”  She would also like to return to Africa and travel across the continent “in search of inspirational everyday stories.”   

You can follow Lola and view her photography online:
Nat Geo Collection / Blog with image bank / Facebook / TwitterInstagram

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Category: Interviews, STORIES


About the Author (Author Profile)

Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.

Comments (38)

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  1. avatar Lucy says:

    Fabulous photos, I love the portrait shots especially (always my weakest when it comes to photography).

  2. I’m always amazed at photographers who get great personal shots of total strangers. It’s odd for me as a newspaper guy, but I’ve always thought I’d be too shy to walk up to strangers and ask to take their photograph.

    • It can be intimidating for sure, but worth a try… When I was in India, I got to chat with people I wanted to photograph – some encouraged me, once they saw the camera – and those ended up being my favorite shots.

  3. avatar Leah says:

    Love this interview. Lola is so right–expats are keen observers. I notice the most minute thing when abroad, while things right in front of me when home escape my attention. Traveling has taught me to not take for granted the familiar around me, however.

  4. i love that she tries to capture moments of joy of contentment, i feel those moments are so special, so important. I am so happy to hear she is sharing them…. and after reading this, i am sorry i missed her talk at TBEX.

    stay photographing, Craig

  5. avatar Dave Cole says:

    Fascinating interview! Lola has such a wonderful eye and I really appreciate her advice of pursuing personal photographic projects. I love capturing portraits in Africa and hope she has the chance to add to her Africa portfolio soon.

  6. Zawsze uważałem, że podróżowane jak i fotografia mogą się uzupełniać i pasują do siebie. Fajnie, że bohaterka angażuje się w projekty. Wywiad interesujący. Pozdrawiam.

  7. grat photos! and that smile :)
    Also intpiring interview.

  8. Bardzo ładne zdjęcia. Ja lubię pisać i podróżować, z fotografią mi trochę nie po drodze, ale się staram. W końcu co to za blog bez zdjęć? ;) Pozdrawiam!

  9. avatar mu.zungu says:

    Niesamowita dziewczyna!

  10. avatar Kinga says:

    Combining travelling, writing and photography in professional life is the best mix I can imagine. That is exactly what keeps me going. Good to know there are other women doing this. ;-)

  11. Great interview. I wish I would have seen this presentation at TBEX.

  12. Really great interview! Lola is so inspiring. We also met her at TBEX Toronto and attended her session on travel photography. Thanks for giving us a chance to get to know her better!

  13. “I often say that expats are keen observers. Mostly because they inhabit that space between mere tourist visiting a place and a born-and-bred local.” Love this. What a great way to put it. I often explain that I’m constantly in limbo. When I’m here in Germany, there are things I miss about America, but when I’m in America there are things I so miss about my home in Germany! I am not a German, but I am also no longer the same as a lot of the people in America…I’m somewhere in the middle.

  14. I’ve admired Lola’s photos for some time now. She’s incredible! Also, I’d like to accompany her on that reindeer migration in Sweden :-)

  15. Beautiful photographs. Dream photo shoot is so hard to choose. The entire world!

  16. avatar zof says:

    What an inspiring character. I love the way she describes expats. This is exactly the way I feel living in Armenia.

  17. avatar Sarah Ebner says:

    Excellent advice and photos, especially of the young girl in Nigeria – such character on her face and a wonderful expression

  18. avatar Milosz Zak says:

    I am certain some of these observations also apply to immigrants. The benefit of having perspective on society, events, and the like is absolutely invaluable these days.

  19. Love the photos and I really appreciate the great advice she gives for those who want to be a photographer!