MN Photographer Essien Akan Celebrates Black Beauty

If you’re one of the 347,000 people who follow Minnesota-by-way-of-Sudan model (and viral sensation) Nyakim Gatwech on Instagram, you may be familiar with the name Essien Akan, a Brooklyn Park­-based photographer who has collaborated with the model since 2016. A recent series depicts Gatwech as a neon-haired, 21st-century take on Grace Jones; yet another was inspired by African royal culture.

Full of color-drenched, iconic, joyous, powerful images of dark-skinned models in a variety of shapes and sizes, Akan’s Instagram feed (@piokky, which boasts 12,800 followers) makes his artistic vision clear: “Black is beautiful.”

The 23-year-old photographer was born and raised in Nigeria before moving to the United States in 2012—”with a bag of dreams and ambition,” he says—to study mechanical engineering at St. Cloud State University. Instead, he got hooked on photography after picking up a camera in 2015, after a friend convinced him to learn how to take professional photos for the style blog he had at the time.

Since then, his work has quickly gained recognition, appearing on BET’s website, The Shade Room, and NYC’s Fashion 360 Magazine, and working with black-owned clothing brands such as California-based Olori Swim, Minneapolis-based brand RuvaAfricWear, and Minneapolis designer Victor Farmah.


On his Instagram, Akan calls himself a “fiction-based photographer.” “It means I will sometimes tell surreal stories in my art,” he explains. “It might not be a true depiction of reality but that’s how I see it and also how I feel. If I captured the reality I would find myself manipulating the results to get my real artistic vision of the shoot.”

Akan draws inspiration for much of his work from African-inspired paintings, as well as Black icons such as Grace Jones. “One of the prominent things about African fashion and style is that there’s a lot of colors in our art and the fabrics we use in our fashion,” he says. He also counts the work of surrealist fashion photographer David LaChapelle as a point of inspiration for his use of bold color.

The photographer’s work gets its futuristic look with help from post-production work in Photoshop, a process he frequently illustrates on his Instagram account through images that outline each step. “It really helps give my work that unique pop,” he says. “Plus, I’m always experimenting with different lighting and in-camera techniques.”

Akan first met Gatwech after she first moved to Minnesota from Buffalo, New York—and she was his very first client. She had been looking for a photographer to take new images of her, and a friend recommended him. “We’ve created so many amazing images together since then,” he says.

While Gatwech’s career has taken off, so is Akan’s—he has plans to spend some time in New York in the coming months to work with some New York-based beauty brands and hopes to make some new connections while he’s there.

No matter where his career takes him, working with models of color will always be integral to Akan’s creative vision. “When I work with people of color, they always tell me how difficult it is to get signed in major agencies because of their skin,” he says. “I try to create really eye-popping work with them since I’d love to see more brand work with people of color in their commercial workflow. I want people to see the New Africa and people of color differently.”