Coco Olakunle

Dechase Originals is a series where we shine a light on friends of the brand and talents across the globe. For this edition, we had a chat with Coco Olakunle; a Nigerian-Dutch photographer based in Amsterdam. She shares her journey; from getting her first camera at the age of 14, to her ambition to build a community for female photographers and make the art world more accessible for all. 

How did you start your journey into photography?

For my 14th birthday I got a camera. From that day onwards I started to play around with it. I would go on adventures with my camera and go to different abandoned places to take pictures. After every outing, I would go home and edit the pictures. With zero experience, it wasn’t looking nice. But at the time, I had no clue!

After finishing high school, I wanted to explore photography further and go to art school. To apply for art school, I had to complete an admission assignment. So, in 2009 I created a photo series about my sisters, who are very special to me. The series captured our everyday activities, such as straightening our hair [what we used to do], visiting the local market where we would buy specific peppers and going to the black hair store where we would buy our hair products. Looking back, it was a photo series on sisterhood, about being Nigerian and being a black woman in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. At the time, I didn’t give it those labels since these conversations weren’t being held. Eventually I did not get accepted into the art school.

What was the name of the art school?

It was the HKU, where I sometimes give guest lectures!After I didn’t get accepted into HKU, I explored other studies such as Psychology, History, Journalism, History and Anthropology. Eventually I decided to study Human Geography and Urban Planning. I was an active student and was part of various clubs and commissions, including the student newspaper. For the student newspaper, I was always dependent on the event pictures of other students, but I never really liked those pictures. So, I decided to go to those events and take the pictures myself!

After graduating, most of my classmates decided to continue their studies. At that point, I was already taking loads of pictures at events, such as weddings. I decided to work at FOAM, a photography museum in Amsterdam. Working at FOAM taught me to appreciate photography as an art form. It also showed me how closed the art world is and its lack of diversity. 

What initially inspired you to create within the medium you work in now?

For me, imagery is the best way to tell a story and I prefer to express myself by creating images. This is especially important for me due to my dyslexia, which I was hiding my whole school career. I made it really hard for myself by hiding it from others. Many creative people have dyslexia, and it should not be a problem. 

As you grow older and wiser in your practice, does your process change at all?

Yes, it definitely changes. The experiences you have change you as a person and as a creator. The more I develop myself as a person, the more I can express what stories I want to tell through my work. I understand now why I became a photographer; I want to take the pictures that I didn’t see growing up. 

What is your hope for the impact that you can have, as you continue to grow?

I hope that I can reach out to other young women. My main goal is to inspire them to get into storytelling. This could be in the form of photography, but also by writing or film making. What I would love is to build a community for female photographers. 

What are you looking forward to next?

Some free time! I want to keep working but would like to do less commissioned work. I would like to work with zero expectations and enjoy taking pictures. The goal is to challenge myself creatively. Doing commissioned work is always created with keeping the customer in mind. If I don’t take time off, I feel like I might lose myself in that type of work. 

How do you stay inspired? 

People inspire me and travelling. Another thing that inspires me is sunlight. The location does not always matter but I look for where the lighting is at its best. It’s not always about the nicest spot. You might be in a not so good-looking place, but the light shines beautifully through the windows. Light is everything!

What is something in your practice that makes you different from others?

No one is really the same, so in that sense I do believe I have a unique story to tell. What I do realise now is that my academic background in Human Geography and Urban Planning gives me a unique perspective. I used to think that I wasn’t good enough as a creative, since I’ve never been to art school or a photo academy. I now see that my educational background is valuable for the work that I’m currently doing. 

Is there anything you plan to do to help grow the community? 

Yes, I try to get involved as much as possible. I work a lot with people and especially with women of colour. Occasionally I organise creative get togethers in my studio with women. It’s super lowkey! Men are also welcomed to join the group, honestly, and it’s really fun. It is just food, music and talking about projects you’re working on. Figuring out if you can tap into each other’s network. Social Media can be really intimidating, as people keep comparing each other on those platforms.
The moment you meet each other in a physical space, face-to-face, all the comparing stops. You’re less interested in where the person is in their career, and you shift towards their journey.

There is a space to ask questions and give each other tips. It is necessary for us to create spaces to talk and show interest in each other’s journey.Another initiative of mine is a book club focussing on photography books. I have a lot of photography books! I don’t have much time to go through these books, so I wanted to organise an event to give people the opportunity to go through these books. There was homemade jollof! And some music in the background. I had really good feedback on this event. People like the fact that they can experience photography in a physical form. We usually experience photography in a digital form, through Instagram on our small screens.

Once you have a book in your hand and feel the texture of the book, it is a better way to appreciate photography. I’m also big on raising awareness on buying art. The art world can be very unfamiliar, if you weren’t surrounded by people who bought art growing up. I would like to spark an interest in people to buy art, not with the notion of “you need the most expensive artwork” hanging in your house. The goal is to raise awareness that we, young creatives, can buy art too.  

Coco Olakunle is wearing the Konso Boots. Photography by Misaki Visuals