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D.C.-based photographer Dee Dwyer has spent years documenting the historically Black neighborhoods of Southeast, which she calls a “hidden gem in the nation’s capital.” In the exhibit Wild Seeds of the Soufside, on view at Phillips@THEARC, Dwyer connects the “Soufside” community, where she was raised, with characters from Wild Seed, a 1980 novel by the pioneering Black science fiction author Octavia E. Butler. Dwyer’s work follows the people who live in Ward 8, as well as gentrification in the neighborhood.
Her photography has been shown in exhibitions at PhotoSCHWEIZ, Photoville, Catchlight, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Her photos have been published in outlets such as Vogue, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, DCist, and National Geographic. At 35, Dwyer has received both a Society of Professional Journalist Dateline Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
City Paper interviewed Dwyer about her current exhibit and her career. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Paper: What are the boundaries of “Soufside”?
Dee Dwyer: Soufside is Ward 8. If you speak to a local, we have an accent where we don’t necessarily pronounce the “th” in Southside. Some do, but most don’t. I have to give a shout-out to artist Keyonna Jones, founder of the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center, who’s been elevating this to the max. She’s from Southeast, too. Soufside’s character is raw and super Black. It’s bodacious and unapologetic. Fun and filled with hope. It’s a throwback to Chocolate City.
WCP: Do you live in Ward 8, and if so, how long have you lived there?
Dwyer: I’ve lived in Soufside off and on since I was around 3 or 4. Until then, I lived on 14th and Girard in Northwest. All of my family is from Uptown. My dad wants me to claim Uptown so badly. My mom and I always have to team up on him letting him know I’m a full-blooded Soufside girl. If I say I’m from 14th and Girard, those people will look at me like I’m crazy! I don’t know anyone there! I left Southeast when I was around 18 or 19, moving to Miami, Florida, for college. A few years later I came back, left, came back. It’s home. I’ll always circle back.
WCP: What gave you the idea to create Wild Seeds of the Soufside and how did it come together?
Dwyer: I’ve been documenting Southeast D.C. for many years. My goal is to help show the world what it’s about. Any opportunity I get, I’m going to rep where I’m from, to show the world D.C. isn’t just about the White House, the monuments, and Congress. It’s beautiful Black people here across the river from all of that.
I was inspired by Octavia E. Butler’s book Wild Seed. I see my people in the two main characters, Doro and Anyanwu. Southeast is a low-resourced area that has a reputation for being treacherous and filled with warrior spirits like Doro. But it is simultaneously healing with an extraordinarily long life like Anyanwu. Soufside is the Wild Seed of D.C.
WCP: What are the misconceptions of this neighborhood among white people?
Dwyer: I’m not speaking on all white people when I say this—only the majority, as I’ve built relationships with solid white people who mean well. But I feel a lot of white people in our city look down on Soufside. From my experiences, it’s looked at as that place to flex their ‘white savior’ energy. I don’t like when they do that. Black people on that side are very much capable of doing good for ourselves, as we are Gods and Goddesses. All we ask is to be fair with how they disperse the city’s resources and put respect on our names. As the city goes through gentrification, don’t come into our communities shunning our culture.
WCP: Are there also misconceptions even among longtime Black Washingtonians?
Dwyer: Yes, when I was growing up, I’d tell people from other parts of the city where I lived. No one hardly ever wanted to visit or drop me off because the only thing they heard was ‘over there’ was high crime and drug addicts. Even some of my close friends from other quadrants believed this. Everyone feared Southeast. They’d take me somewhere in between. I’d have to catch the Metro to Anacostia station and hop on the B2 for the rest of the way home. I remember being so ashamed as a teenager that I’d lie about where I was from just to be accepted, telling people, “I’m from Uptown.”
My childhood best friend, who was from Congress Park, will always tell me, “Dee, you’re from Southeast. Be real with yourself.” After leaving for college to go to Miami, I accepted the beauty in my struggle. This is why in every interview, I say where I’m from loud and proud because I want the world to know that yes, roses grow through the concrete on the Soufside. There are successful, talented, and intellectual people on that side. It’s not all violent.
WCP: How big are your concerns about gentrification?
Dwyer: Extremely big! All of the quadrants in D.C. have been gentrified except Ward 8. Losing that original Chocolate City culture there would be heartbreaking. I just want to see my people win. Keeping our homes is winning. I’m all about having change, but when people are pushed out and can’t enjoy those changes in their own community because of capitalism, I feel it’s wrong and very predatory. Where is the humanity?
WCP: How much has the neighborhood changed, and do you think that will continue?
Dwyer: The neighborhood I grew up in, Choppa City, hasn’t changed much, but it is coming. My parents have our family home in the Congress Heights area. That’s changing drastically. The good thing is their property value is going up. I see white people jogging with their dogs and pushing their babies. Growing up, the only white people we saw in the area were the police, child protective services, or those doing community service. I had a white principal at Ketcham Elementary School, where I went from kindergarten until 6th grade. She had a lot of flavor and stood her ground. But those were the only white people we were exposed to. So it’s really shocking to see the changes happening.
WCP: Tell me about your past experiences as a photographer.
Dwyer: I was introduced to photography as a career through the go-go. Watching the cameraman work his magic to photograph the people inspired me. There was a guy named Love who would go around every neighborhood in D.C.—Barry Farm, Congress Park, Whaler Place, Choppa City, you name it. He’d ride through in his van, the people would strike a pose, pay him and a few days later he’d drop off photos. I never saw him get out of his car. Back then, I realized photography can be a business.
Fast-forward to me going to college to become a criminal defense lawyer. I wanted to get my friends and boyfriend at the time out of jail. They were arrested on conspiracy charges. Growing up in Southeast, I detest seeing people I love wrongfully arrested. But I felt my major was boring. So I left that and told my friends I’ll tell their story using film. Heavily inspired by Spike Lee, I said I’ll study filmmaking and create movies about Southeast D.C., just as he did for Brooklyn. I took a black-and-white film photography class. That’s when my love for photography blossomed.
Long story short, I got married, had two kids and was a housewife for years. It wasn’t until about seven years later, when I decided to divorce, that I picked the camera back up after a trip in 2016 to Salvador, Brazil. That’s when I began to commit to photography. Since then, I’ve been going nonstop with it.
WCP: Are you trying to achieve a certain look with your photographs?
Dwyer: I just want people to feel like they’re experiencing what’s in the photo. The only thing I’m achieving is being authentic. I take pictures with my soul. I’m in the moment with the person my camera is pointed to.
WCP: Ultimately, are you optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between about the future of Southeast?
Dwyer: I’m in between. We need changes for sure. However, if my people can’t enjoy them, what’s the point?
Dee Dwyer gives an artist talk at 2:30 p.m. on March 25 as part of her exhibit, Wild Seeds of the Soufside. Free, registration required.
The exhibition is on view through May 11 at Phillips@THEARC. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. phillipscollection.org. Free.