Take one look at Lola Akinmade’s website of photography and writing and you’ll quickly realize she’s been just about everywhere you’ve marked down on your travel wish list. The girl gets around. Lucky for us, she documents her travels with photos and writing so vivid you feel like she’s brought you along for the ride.
It’s this vibrancy that’s kept me following her work since I stumbled upon her website a year ago. Since that day, I’ve been curious about the trajectory of her career path, why she left a cushy job to work freelance, and how she carved out a place for herself in the world of travel writing and photography. I knew instinctively that I could learn something from her.
In this interview, she sheds a little light on her plans and successes, and talks about the patient, determined steps she’s taken to get where she is today.
Simone: How did you get started traveling?
Lola: For the first fifteen years of my life, I lived in Nigeria and my family always traveled, taking extended trips to the US, UK, and Europe. I went backpacking solo for the first time around 2000-2001, and have been traveling ever since.
Simone: You worked in Geographic Information Sciences ten years before making the leap to freelance travel writing and photography. What prompted you to make that transition? Was it something you had always wanted to do?
Lola: I’ve actually been working within the GIS industry since 1997. Always been a geography nut, and will continue to have a soft-spot for developing interactive maps. While I truly loved my GIS work, my creative side eventually won over my technical side, and I began freelancing on the side.
When it was time to leave, the transition was actually situational because I was relocating to Sweden and my current employer didn’t have any international branches. I still do a bit of consulting and web development through my company, Lemurworks, LLC.
Simone: Can you tell us a little bit about your personal career path in freelance? What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Lola: My first “break” occurred when I was chosen to be one of 100 volunteers working with the Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in Fiji. I worked as a field journalist where we were to trail the teams all over the islands and dispatch daily via the website.
Our team of four was writing up daily press releases, doing competitor interviews, filing travel narratives, and so much more. Working behind the scenes of a production of that caliber (producer Mark Burnett, the man behind Survivor also created and produced the Eco-Challenge) taught me so much in just three weeks.
Simone: Did you start out online or in print? If online, was it challenging to transition to print work?
That stint with Eco-Challenge got me interested in travel writing. Then one day, back in 2007 while researching round-the-world trips, I stumbled across a budding online community called Matador Travel at the time and one of my favorite editors on earth, David Miller. David was willing to take a chance on my writing, and spent time mentoring me through my first pitch.
After collecting enough online clips, including creating a website for showcasing work, I felt confident enough to start pitching to various print outlets with links to online samples.
Now I regularly write for a couple major print publications.
Simone: Your blog is an enviable chronicle of travels all over the world, told vibrantly through the lens of your photography and writing. To fund these travels, have you ever had to do other work to make ends meet?
Lola: I’m blushing….thanks! I started freelancing on the side while holding a cushy fulltime job as a GIS System Architect, so I was blessed to be able to afford traveling without worrying too much.
In anticipation of transitioning into fulltime freelancing, I started saving a lot more. Now as a fulltime freelancer, I’m more cognizant of expenses and also try to be smarter about what types of writing and photography gigs I take.
It’s more time-efficient for me to write a 500-word article for $500 than 50 blog posts for $10 each. I’m also open to taking a few press trips to help offset some travel costs.
As mentioned earlier, I do some freelance web development as well through Lemurworks to supplement.
Simone: Are there any writers or photographers that have inspired the character of your work?
Too many to list. Seriously. I love traditional photojournalism. While I appreciate hard-hitting war documentary photography, I’m drawn more to daily slice-of-life photojournalism that showcases life‘s balance.
I really like Ed Kashi’s work from the oil-rich, conflict-prone Delta region of my home country, Nigeria. I also admire Glenna Gordon, Ami Vitale, and Alison Wright.
I love working with nonprofit organizations, documenting their field work in different countries through writing and photography. If I could find a way to earn a living solely doing this, I would in a heartbeat.
In terms of writers, again, too many to list. Though I admire and respect dozens of writers, I draw a lot of inspiration from simple quotes and music lyrics.
Simone: Many travel writers say that in order to be successful, you need to occupy a niche—cover a specific subject, region, or theme. Do you find yourself doing this?
Lola: It works both ways. If you’re just starting out, you can write for a variety of resources while still building a niche with one or two publications. Or if you happen to find yourself in a region where there isn’t too much coverage, you can definitely leverage that.
For example, I’ve written a lot about Sweden and Stockholm because I live there. One of my print editors knows this and usually approaches me with last minute pieces needed from the region.
To be successful, you need to be good at and confident in what you do and this takes practice, regardless of whether you’re covering a specific subject or writing for a wide array of outlets.
Simone: You do an array of kinds of travel writing – from narratives, to how-tos, to service pieces for magazines. Does the versatility keep travel writing interesting, or do you envision a time when you can focus on one kind of writing?
The versatility definitely keeps it interesting for me. It’s a lot more strategic, though. How-tos and service pieces pay more than narratives which tend to have limited outlets…unless you’re writing a 2,500 word feature narrative for National Geographic or similar, and those types of gigs are usually reserved for industry veterans and writers they’ve developed decade-long relationships with.
As a freelancer, you need to be flexible enough to be able to dabble in various styles.
Simone: Do you any future plans for a book or photography exhibition?
Lola: There are so many half-completed projects and ideas floating around at the moment. As an oil painter, I’ve had many exhibitions in the past.
I’ve got specific portfolios from my photojournalism work in Nigeria, so I plan on exhibiting those in the not too distant future along with other photography.
Simone: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in going into travel writing?
Patience. This is one trait everyone needs to develop. Chances are “success,” however you define it, isn’t going to happen overnight. Be reasonable and practical. Life does come with some responsibilities and if you have them (bills, family, mortgage), you can’t just neglect them for the sake of pursing a dream.
One of my favorite lyrics from U2 says “…what you thought was freedom was just greed.” There’s a very thin line between living your passions and doing it at the expense of your personal responsibilities.
That said, life is definitely too short for you not to live your authentic self so start a steady transition. Be proactive and aggressive in connecting with other writers and editors without being self-serving about it.
Most people can smell a networking rat from miles away.
Here’s a piece I wrote that I usually refer people to who are trying to transition into fulltime freelancing.
If you’re not yet confident in your travel writing skills, I strongly recommend the excellent course offered by MatadorU. Most of our students and alumni are now working travel writers.
Simone: What do you love best about the life of a travel writer/photographer?
While it may not be the most lucrative career path, the feeling I get from experiential travel and documenting it through writing and photography is deeply fulfilling. I’m only now enjoying the utter flexibility that comes with setting one’s own working schedule.
There’s a certain optimistic realism and down-to-earth vibe that comes from being a photojournalist and traveler. I feel much more connected to and invested in people, their lives, their aspirations, and their dreams, than I ever did when I worked in a cubicle.
And for this, I feel blessed and extremely grateful.