Protests are not new to Washington, DC and are happening all the time, says Dee Dwyer—a photojournalist born and raised on the southeast side of the nation’s capital. But there was something different about the protests that swept the city during the summer of 2020. The world was on fire. We were living through a global pandemic that was being relentlessly mismanaged by the Trump Administration, a mishandling and neglect that disproportionately affected Black and Brown people. Add to all of that grief, frustration and fear the killing of three unarmed Black people by white vigilantes and the police, it made sense that people took to the streets in ways this nation and world has not seen in many years. Dee Dwyer grabbed her camera and did the work she’d been doing in DC since she was a child; she documented the Black joy, Black pain and Black rage happening throughout the city. We got to sit down with Dywer—whose photographs have appeared in The Wallstreet Journal, The Guardian, and Vanity Fair amongst other publications—to talk about the Black radical tradition of protest, the power of new beginnings, and how her work documenting Black DC combats erasure as gentrification eats the city alive.
Your photographs from the protests last summer tap into so many emotions, making us feel like we were right there with you in the heart of DC. Did you hesitate before heading out? What made you push through that fear, or hesitation, to document the protests?
I definitely was thinking about the danger—as a single mom I had to. I’d documented protests before, but this felt very different. I was like, “Wait it’s a pandemic!” At the same time, I thought about how these protests were world-wide, and that this was history in the making, and I just knew that I had to get my ass out there. I owed it to my children, who I constantly have to reteach American history to push back against what they are often taught at school. I owed it to my former art students. I wanted to do my part to make sure the whole story would be told. Plus, I know a lot of activists. They’re my friends. These Black women are always in the community working, and I would be out shooting the work that they do. After a while, they’d call me personally to come out and shoot. So, it kind of felt like my duty to tell their stories. I thought, these people are out here fighting for me. They’re fighting for my kids, my family. They’re risking their lives. The least I could do was show up for them and make sure their work was being represented in the right way. So, I would lie to my parents so they wouldn’t worry about me being out there. I’d tell them that I needed to run to the grocery store or something, but the whole time I’d be on the front lines shooting. Those moments was bigger than me and any fears that I might have had.
You’ve said that documenting protests is just part of the work that you do to tell the stories of Black DC; that you’ve always wanted to tell the stories of the people living in your community; and that this desire started for you at a very early age. Tell us more about your childhood and how photography found you.
I am from southeast DC, which is an underserved and under-sourced community. I grew up in the neighborhood where Frederick Douglass lived. I actually used to play in his yard when I was young. As a kid, I used to sit on my porch and watch the action of what was happening in the apartment buildings across the street from my house. There was always a lot going on, street hustling all types of stuff, and I would just sit there for hours people watching. I feel like this is really where my desire to document stories started. My friends would try to pull me away to play with them, and I’d tell them no. I’d tell them if they wanted to hang with me, they’d have to join me on the porch. And, wherever I would go, I would just watch people. When I got older—maybe around 14—I would go to the Go Gos around DC and hang out with my friends. GoGo is like pure DC culture. But I’d be completely drawn to the photobooths while I was there and the people—dressed, fresh to death—waiting to have their photos taken in front of these airbrushed backgrounds. The whole time I’d be on the dance floor, I’d still be watching the picture guys. Eventually, I just started talking to them about their experiences; it was so interesting to me. I went out and bought my first disposable camera and hit the streets. I would really just visit different neighborhoods in DC—mostly shooting my friends. I’d take the camera to a local CVS and develop the pictures, then I’d go back to the places I shot and hand out the pictures I took. Even then, I wasn’t thinking of the possibilities of becoming a photographer. That this was something I could do, or someone I could be.
So, when did that realization come? That you wanted to be a photographer?
It took a bit longer. When I started college, at first, I thought I wanted to be criminal defense lawyer. I wanted to be a lawyer because I grew up watching my friends get caught up in the carceral system, and I was always someone who wanted to help my friends and the people I love. And I thought as a defense lawyer I could advocate for them. Then I started taking political science classes, and I realized law wasn’t for me. Around that same time, I was really heavy into Spike Lee. I wanted to do what he did—tell the stories of Brooklyn. I thought I could do that for Southeast. I could advocate for the people I care about and the community I care about through filmmaking. I lived in Miami and studied filmmaking. Then, I got married. I had my children, and during that whole time I did very little shooting. My spouse, at the time, wasn’t very supportive.
It wasn’t until I went through a divorce and had to move back in with my parents, until I came home to Southeast, that I picked up a camera and started shooting people in my community again. At the time, I was really going through it. And in hindsight, I needed my family, I needed to be back home. Plus being back at home with my family gave me the support I needed so I could really focus on studying my craft. I put work in every-single-day.
This is so important to discuss—so many Black women artists lack that support and it deeply impacts their ability to create.
Absolutely. At first, I was not at all excited about moving back home. But if I wouldn’t have done that, I would have been out trying to work to pay the bills, while parenting full time and dealing with the stress of a divorce. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. So I just focused on shooting, and people would see my photos and tell me about all kinds of different opportunities. I was an art teacher for a while, but I knew I needed to do more, that photojournalism was my calling.
Last year, Report for America, which is a fellowship where they pair journalists with newsrooms, put out a call that they were looking for a journalist from Southeast DC to cover Wards 7 & 8. So, everybody started blowing me up. Because this is what I do, right? I applied—didn’t think anything of it. Ben Brody—this really dope photographer working for Report for America—was in charge of the talent. He interviewed me, and saw my work, and was like if The DCist doesn’t hire you they’re crazy. And here I am. I write and I shoot for The DCist. I cover the 7th and 8th wards. I took the leap of faith to be a full-time photojournalist and to document the lives of the people living in the community I grew up in, in the community I love. And I haven’t looked back.
I know your story is going to inspire so many people, especially Black women creatives. Tell me a bit about who inspires you.
There are so many people. I think about people like Dudley Brooks, who is the deputy director of photography at The Washington Post and who has been shooting for over 30 years. He’s definitely a champion and a legend in the industry. I absolutely love Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems. And I am inspired by my peers. Black Shutter is a group of amazing photographers. They’ve been a great resource for me as I’m learning the industry. Definitely Jamel Shabazz and Howard Cash. Howard Cash is like your favorite photographer’s favorite photographer, and he has been that battery in my back. And Howard introduced me to Michelle Agins, who has been shooting at The New York Times for over 30 years. I have been able to just sit with her and learn so much. I feel very fortunate.
It’s so dope that you’ve had the opportunity to build these relationships with so many Black legends in photography. Tell me something you’ve learned that you want to pass along to up and coming creatives.
One thing that I took away from my conversation with Michelle, that I think is important. That I needed to hear is to stay focused. Know why you’re here. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing and stay true to that. Because there’s going to be some bullshit. And there are many times when I want to bring out that girl from Southeast DC but hearing that reminded me that I have to choose my battles. This is so important if you want longevity. I want to build a legacy, so that I can make space for other Black photographers, so I can call an editor and tell them to give this young Black photojournalist a shot and build the kind of relationships that let me help in that way.
Also, I feel like it’s my duty to inspire single mothers who are artists or creators who are working hard to reach their goals. Keep going and don’t give up. I think about my own mother who used to take pictures. And she’s a writer; she loves to write. I watched my mom sacrifice so much. She worked so hard and never had time to work on her craft. And I love my mother, but I didn’t want that to be my story. Other single moms should know that this doesn’t have to be their story either. Live for yourself.
Josie Pickens is an educator, writer, culture critic and community organizer. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @jonubian.
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