Akilah Institute photography – Rwandan style!

When our team met up with a client in London’s St James’s Park, we could never have guessed that a straightforward portrait commission would lead to a photographic assignment in Rwanda. Here’s what happened…

In August 2018, we arranged to photograph a new client. Elizabeth Hughes flew in from Hong Kong for a business trip, and was keen to have her portrait taken. We met her in St James’s Park and spent some time strolling the gardens to get to know her, so we’d really be able to capture her spirit in the pictures. We soon learned that she was the co-founder and CEO of a women’s college in Rwanda – it sounded fascinating.

When the shoot was completed, we sent her the images. She was so pleased with the results that she invited the shoot team to travel out to Rwanda for the college’s graduation week in November. Of course, we jumped at the chance.

The Akilah Institute is an award-winning women’s college located in the heart of Rwanda. It works with the local community in a progressive fashion to educate young women – to give both them and the country a more secure future. We were immediately impressed by this, and over the course of the week we were there, we saw first-hand the amazing work the college does and the fabulous achievements of its students.

This became evident when we visited two alumni who were now working in jobs they loved, directly as a result of attending the college. Sandrine works as a trainee programmer in a new start-up – which is a thriving market in the country. Like many of the young women we met there, she was initially shy about having her photo taken, but we were able to quickly put her at her ease by laughing and joking with her and her new Swedish boss. The second student we met was Souzane. She’s running her own company, making traditionally-designed Rwandan bowls, which she sells not only locally but also to international retail chains. The business has brought continuous work to her and the women she employs, as each bowl can take up to five days to complete.

The week we spent in Rwanda was hectic, but as with any graduation ceremony, there was an undertone of excitement wherever we went. As well as shooting the big day itself, we also set out to capture the students and the faculty to give them material for future fund-raising campaigns. All Headshot London photographers can pack a studio-quality set up into a rucksack for travelling, and this critical overseas to allowed us to capture the best images of the staff and students.

The guest of honour for the week was Dr Joyce Band, the former president of Malawi, who was soon to run for office again. This amazing woman regards herself as a rebel against male power, and often speaks out against corruption and supporter of women’s rights in Africa. There was a buzz in the air when she arrived and we could feel the respect that all the students have for her. We were extremely lucky to have an early morning session with Dr Banda and the rest of the board of Akilah – though she had only a short time to spare before her next engagement. With just five minutes to grab our shot, we had to make the most of the hotel meeting room walls and two Profoto lights from the kit-bag. The challenge was to capture the essence of this great woman in a way that was flattering without being so glamorous that it lost the extraordinary connection she has with her grass-root supporters. An accommodating sitter, she asked what pose we wanted her to do, so we assured her that I wanted to capture her looking as natural as possible in her traditional clothing. Happily, her warmth and personality shone through in the results.

Once she had left, it was the turn of the other members of the board to have new headshots – and afterwards, we were satisfied to have achieved studio quality portraits with a backdrop as uninspiring as a hotel meeting room.

The following day, we were on hand at the graduation ceremony. For us, it was full on, but we appreciated working in such a joyous atmosphere throughout. The students gathered in the library beforehand, allowing us to get some headshots that would show the rest of the world these wonderful student ambassadors.


The ceremony itself was a hectic few hours of speeches and presentations. We were shooting constantly to capture the atmosphere of the day, working hard to get the shot we needed without intrusion. For this to work, we followed three important rules for taking pictures at events:

  • Never use a flash – it can be a nightmare for a speaker and distract the audience.
  • Avoid being intrusive with the sound of the shutter, only shooting when appropriate.
  • Try not to be the centre of attention – stand to one side or crouch low enough not to obscure the audience’s view of whomever is speaking.

The afternoon was a success, for both the students and us. Our client was over the moon as we captured the smiles on the students’ faces and the happy atmosphere of the day. When the work was done, we rewarded ourselves with a day on safari – enjoying a completely different style of photography!