Four Questions for Kathy Akey
"The geopolitical effects of that first war echo to this day"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
Like many historical/cultural institutions, the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission relies on the generous help of volunteers. These people invariably have one certain trait in common -- they have interesting stories to tell. One such member of the Centennial Commission family is our Social Media Director, Katherine Akey. Katherine came to us right out of graduate school for photography. She has a passionate interest in history & archaeology. She is trained in fine art, and will open her first solo photography exhibition later this year at a gallery in DC. As a new media pro, she is a true superstar, and has built the Centennial Commission's Instagram account from the ground up. We caught up with Katherine recently, and she told us about what brought her to the Centennial Commission.
You have an interesting background. How did you get involved with the WW1CC?
My interest in the war intensified while I was in graduate school for photography. I had been working on my thesis, a body of work concerning polar exploration at the turn of the century. There’s a lot of overlap between the expeditions in the early 20th century and the First World War, and soon my polar studies slipped into war studies. I started reading all the books on it that I could and I decided I wanted to bring the study of the conflict into my professional life increasingly over time.
Volunteering for the WW1CC seemed like a natural first step! I knew I had photographic and communications skills to offer and I have really enjoyed curating the photographic content on Instagram the last several months.
You are contributing to the Centennial Commission's Facebook presence, and basically create their Instagram account from scratch. Tell us about what you are doing with them - what is your vision, how do you research and create your posts, who do you follow, etc?
It actually doesn’t take too much work to dig up the incredible images and stories I find to share with the public. Since I’m a working artist making projects about the conflict, a lot of my time is spent looking at archival images, reading historical texts and just surrounding myself with as much WW1 information as possible. During my studies, I’ll come across something that I feel like is great to share on the Instagram and Facebook pages and I’ll send it off! I try to mix it up though between images of people, technology and facts. I follow a lot of other WWI accounts personally, most of whom are European.
I especially love those that can give me exposure to points of view that are underrepresented in my day to day, like http://www.empirefaithwar.com whose Instagram account displays images and stories of Sikh WWI soldiers and the Facebook group World War One Native American Warriors which celebrates those Native Americans who volunteered to serve in the conflict. I really hope that people come away with an increased sense of respect for those who served in this war, and maybe even enough interest to come back again!
You have had some awesome successes with your posts! Tell us about what your audiences like. What are your favorite stories? Any surprises?
People seem to really respond to information that surprises them. We all know there were planes in the war, but seeing the camera equipment used on them is a great extension of that knowledge. It’s all about building on what is already familiar, broadening understanding while remaining relatable. My favorite stories are usually the ones that come straight from an individual who served, but I always get lots of positive response when I post about the animals who served in the war, of which there were thousands upon thousands. Who doesn’t love a company mascot like Sgt Stubby or a kitten named Mustard?
World War One happened 100 years ago, and many see it as a forgotten war. Why is it important for you to create these Instagram posts, and tell these stories?
One of my favorite authors, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, wrote that when a man dies an unknown world dies with him. Reading that seemed to put words to a concept I had found compelling for years, and it’s why I am so attracted to the stories of people long past. WW1 is in an interesting position relative to me and many others nowadays because of it’s distance, both in time and technology. There’s enough similarity in clothing, language and culture for it to seem familiar and relatable to us, but it’s far enough away for there to be no living participants who can speak for that time. And although many aspects of the conflict are familiar, cars and telephones and planes, so much of that technology was brand new, experimental and strange. It’s a period of time just on the cusp of becoming so old and far away as to be unrecognizably strange, but it’s not quite there yet.
I think coming from an American perspective also skews our view of the war; it doesn’t loom in our collective cultural memories the way WW2 does. And that’s a huge shame! Not only are there millions of unknown worlds snuffed out by the war, waiting to be explored through letters, stories and photographs, but the geopolitical effects of that first war echo to this day. I’m so glad to be a part of the efforts to increase exposure to and understanding of the conflict and those that lived it.