In the interim between classes at Western Washington University, Red Square is a bustling crowd of diverse people, all walking to their own different destinations and all inhabiting a headspace where they think that both everybody and nobody is looking.
Fourth-year student Maile Akeo works to capture these candid moments and chronicle them on her Instagram account Watching WWU.
As a global humanities and religions major with a minor in African American studies, you’d might be surprised that Akeo would run a popular photography Instagram account in her spare time.
However, she has been doing photography as a hobby since she was 10 years old. She said her mom was a big reason for this, as there was always a digital camera or a camcorder around when she was growing up.
“I just always liked being the one taking the picture,” Akeo said. “I think it’s more of a creative control thing.”
While she has done some photography jobs in the past, one aspect of them that has always discouraged Akeo from pursuing it further is having to pose models. Luckily, candid photography does away with that altogether.
“I think that with candids people always assume that it's going to be a bad picture or they're not going to look flattering if they're not posing a certain way, and I think it surprises a lot of people after I post the pictures that they're like, oh, this is actually really good,” Akeo said.
Inspired by Johnny Cirillo, also known as @watchingnewyork on Instagram, Akeo made @WatchingWWU in early March and has since quickly grown to have over 1,700 followers.
After posting when and where she will be on campus, Akeo will roam with her Nikon digital camera and 70-300 mm lens, snapping candid photos of people and outfits that catch her eye.
Afterward, she walks up to whoever she just shot a photo of, gives the now well-practiced spiel about the account, then asks whether or not it’s OK for her to post the photos.
Second-year Natalie Giles remembers the day she was photographed by Akeo very fondly.
Smiling, Giles said, “I was really happy and kind of surprised because that day I had run out of laundry and threw on whatever. She was like, ‘your outfit is so cool,’ and I was like, ‘thank you!’”
Giles said she would love to be posted on the account again, ideally not on laundry day.
Garth Amundson, Professor of Art & Photography at Western said, “WWU is not a fashion center, but it does have a distinct [northwest] style.”
When asked about the prevailing style of Western, Akeo said, “The only way I could describe it is [that] it’s like a granola aesthetic.”
She said that she could do an entire series of posts devoted to overalls.
Regardless, she said she hopes the account can be seen as an archive of fashion and life at Western.
In reference to throwback pictures that the official WWU Instagram account posts occasionally, she said, “I've always been interested to see what they were wearing back in like the 50s on campus [and] how it could be kind of similar to today, but obviously with a modern twist.”
She also lists her own way of dressing as a reason for starting the account.
“I didn’t know what to wear to class," she said. "Especially going back into in-person I was like, ‘what does everybody wear?’”
The account has only been up a month and many students across campus are sending her messages saying that she has inspired them to put more thought into their outfits in an effort to be posted on the account.
“I would probably just describe it as overwhelming,” Akeo said. “I didn’t realize it would get to this point where people are actually putting in effort [like this].”
While most discussion surrounding the account is mostly regarding fashion, it isn’t the sole priority for Akeo.
“I don't want to focus necessarily on just fashion and outfits, which is basically what everybody talks the page up to be,” she said. “I wanted [it to] be a safe space where people can be seen where normally they wouldn't be seen.”
Will Frantz (he/him) is a campus news reporter for The Front. He is currently a sophomore and will be majoring in Journalism with a Public Relations focus. His writing interests are fashion, music and food. In his free time, he can be found listening to niche dream pop and working out at the rec center, often at the same time.
You can reach him at email@example.com or on Instagram @willfrantzvevo.