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How to find your fire

We sat down for dinner with photographer Coco Olakunle to discuss her latest travels to Lagos, Nigeria and her path to finding inner fire.

You can hear the sound of church bells setting the stage while Coco shares her experiences about her insecurities as a teenage girl, finding her purpose, travelling to Nigeria for the first time and having more confidence about her work. In the early days when Coco was studying “Human Geography and Urban Planning”, she realised that she can use visuals rather than words to do research for her thesis despite receiving many objections from her tutors claiming that film was too subjective. The views ont this topic has changed nowadays as film and photography are becoming the leading way to communicate information and collect research about individual people and communities, and most importantly tell stories. Thus became her platform, film, and photography. After many attempts as an art director on sets, various obscure paid gigs, and photoshoots, Coco eventually started to ask herself: Is this it? 

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“I felt like I had to find my fire”

Coco shares that after her first trip to Nigeria she knew that something has changed for her personally and more so in her work. Very quickly she realized that Nigeria was a very different place of that she has heard of as a child. She wanted to show the rich and colourful culture of Nigeria, the creative people there and the fashion that she discovered during her visits (multiple, that fallowed after her first one). “I heard so much shit about Nigeria that’s why I was surprised after my visit and wanted to grab everyone and show them – This is Nigeria too.”

“The experience starts the moment you enter the plane, you see all these beautiful people, all the smells from the dried fish they put in their suitcases. I felt very welcomed and I felt Nigerian, even tho it was my first time visiting…”

“After the first time I went back multiple times, I made it my mission to not only go and take pictures but find clients that would pay for my ticket”- Coco shares. 

“When I went to Nigeria and took pictures, I knew what my purpose was. I knew I wanted to photograph the local people who had style and courage. They could walk in a pajama and look fire.”

“They could walk in a pyjamas and look fire”

“There are some things I cannot fully explain and could only describe them as luck. Flisco, Wieden + Kennedy and montclair magazine hired me on multiple gigs around Nigeria, Kenya & Lagos.” Coco speaks with such ease about the work she got. She called it luck few times. I wast starting to wonder, how does one become successful in finding the exact work she only recently realised she’s passionate about in a different continent still new to her. It all came down to finding your fire, so I asked immediately, how does one find their fire?

“You need to find the thing you care about. It can be anything but you have to care about something to find that fire. For you it can be something different than for me. Once you feel that fire, other people will start picking it up. But as I said, it will be personal to each individual and their story, their background, heritage. Eventually, they will all come together and make that boom in your heart. taht will start your fire. That’s it. You don’t want to die and not find your fire.”

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Coco outside her beautiful house in Amsterdam

She later explains once she found her fire, she became the photographer that does work on the African continent and once agencies had the need to do a shoot, they thought of her.

Finding your purpose also makes it clear why you are doing what you are doing and for what reasons, work wise it also clarifies what brands you want to be working with. Before I used to do all sorts of different work and some I really didn’t like, but now I feel I found my direction.

Also, if you want to find your fire – you’ll just have to go and do it. make things because they interest you, Dive in. Do the work.

Even before I went to Nigeria, I was already approaching girls in Amsterdam with afro hair and asking if I could take their picture for my project @showyourfrow. I wasn’t payed for it and didn’t really know why I decided to do it. I just wanted to connect with these girls and talk about our hair.

Why was it important for you to talk about your hair?

It’s quite deep and not everyone will understand and I’m sure it’s different for people around in different continents but for me growing up in a white environment and having afro hair was very alienating. First of all, no-one knew how to treat it (just a side note – coco’s mum is white Dutch), they will make innocent jokes like ‘it’ so soft, feels like a sheep’, so for me, it felt weird to have something like that on my head. I also didn’t see anyone else with afro hair so I did my best to make my hair straight, for me it felt more normal, not weird. Now it’s changing. You see more women out with their natural hair. I remember the time when my sister suddenly decided to cut her straight hair and grow her natural afro-hair. She made this video, dancing, and singing and shaking the hair, and I thought to myself “wow, I didn’t know we had that hair”. So I decided to do the same. The first time I went outside, I felt really strange and not beautiful but I knew I just have to get through this day, and then this guy gave me a compliment about my hair and it made me feel more confident, it was all I needed then. Once I had my hair in my natural afro, it became so important to me and my identity and my African routs. And it’s not just about wanting straight hair when you have curly, this was about acceptance. Having my natural hair in the states can mean that I might not be able to get a job, it’s considered unprofessional. Or even here in Netherlands people compliment my hair and then want to touch it. It becomes a thing in itself. I know it’s beautiful but please don’t touch my hair get over it, it’s just how it grows.

We have been repressed and denied the beauty of our natural hair. I feel it’s time to get together and celebrate it and that’s what I did with the #showyourfrow photography project. We have to talk about our hair and feel empowered and beautiful. Who else is going to do it? Advertising doesn’t fo it, movies don’t do it, celebrities don’t do it, even Beyonce doesn’t wear her natural hair.

What do you think about the racial division in the Netherlands?

I go to a lot of panels and conversations about racial inclusivity and even though I don’t really enjoy talking about it, I try to be more open and get more involved these days. I think to make a real change you have to give opportunities, not just talk about how to be more inclusive, just give more contracts to minorities. Give people jobs. Allow them to get started and become more confident in their fields. If you want a change – change.

How have the Kennedys impacted your career?

Wieden gave me a great opportunity to kick off my career until then I felt very insecure about my title as a photographer, partly that and partly not knowing my fire yet. After a photo shoot, I would often think ‘thank god that went well because I actually don’t know what I’m doing”. Nobody told me I was a photographer and I felt I needed that validation to be more confident but actually only after I found the thing I was most passionate about in photography is where I found my confidence. When I went to Nigeria it was as if a compass was pointed and it said “this is Coco” and suddenly you found a direction. You become more confident not only in the work you do but in the work you don’t. If anyone asks me to do a product should, I can say no now, because I know that it’s on the other end of the spectrum from the documentary work that I love doing.

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