Dee Dwyer on the importance of true historical representation

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Activism & Protest, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

For the past half decade, Dee Dwyer has documented the ongoing protests occurring in her city, Washington DC,  feeling it her duty to tell the story from the perspective of the Black community.

Dee Dwyer grew up in Washington, DC, a city she describes as a “battlefield for change”. Using photography, she tirelessly documents the Black Lives Matter and anti-racist protests that have taken place in the city since 2015, including the toppling and burning of the statue of Confederate general Albert Pike on Juneteenth 2020. The documentary photographer has also attended pro-Trump marches, captured dirt bikers on the streets, and photographed childbirth, representing her ongoing interest in all kinds of radical acts that shape the public consciousness. Dwyer’s photographs have been widely published by platforms including The Guardian, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. They are part of an important counter narrative in the mainstream media, where the movement is often portrayed by white photographers for white spectators with hyperbolic drama.

Dwyer discovered a love for black-and-white photography while studying for a BFA in film-making, amid the potent context of her day-to-day surroundings: “I’ll be out for lunch and see a protest,” she quips. This, paired with an undeviating artistic vision, set her on a new path to empower through images. We see traces of her training in the cinematic sensibilities of her work, photographs that capture the emotional intensity and the bubbling tension. Without descending into sensationalism, she instead chooses to focus on the individuals and moments that are missed in the midst of the crowd’s momentum.  

June 6 2020 Protesters at the Freedom Fighters Protest lat Dirksen © Dee Dwyer.
© Dee Dwyer.

What do you mean when you refer to Dee Dwyer Jonts? What does ‘jonts’ refer to?

‘Jonts’ is [Washington] DC lingo for joints, referring to things. Spike Lee calls his films Spike Lee Joints, so I refer to my images as Dee Dwyer Jonts to give them that ‘DC flava’. Growing up, I was inspired by the way Lee represented Brooklyn and his storytelling skills about his own community, so much so that I went on to study film-making. It was during a black-and-white film photography class for my degree that I discovered my love for photography. My goal was to rep south-east DC, where I grew up, and tell our stories to the world as well. Soufside, as we call it, is the hidden gem across the bridge from the White House, full of Black people and culture. 

 

How did your documentary protest work, particularly of the BLM protests, evolve from the first series of protest photographs you shot, titled Tension?

In 2018, when Trump was president, white supremacists held a protest in DC and Black Lives Matter led a counter-protest to shut them down. I went out alone with my camera to document it. It was the biggest anti-racist protest I’d ever witnessed at that time. That’s when I decided to take documenting the movement more seriously, because I felt that there weren’t enough Black visual storytellers reporting from the front lines. I saw how the protesters fighting the good fight to end racism were badly represented in the media. I knew the importance of having those historical moments told the right way. During the 2020 protests and pandemic, it was a spiritual calling for me. It was my duty.  

© Dee Dwyer.
Knuckle Head who is a local DMV rapper is at MLK Deli's 1 year celebration in Southeast, D.C.© Dee Dwyer.

“All I have in mind is showing the truth. I aim to tell a well-balanced story. I aim to put humanity first and to clear up any misconceptions. “

What is going through your mind when you’re at these protests? Previously you’ve said that photographing them is a way to give a shape to what’s happening, to understand it somehow.

All I have in mind is showing the truth. I aim to tell a well-balanced story. I aim to put humanity first and to clear up any misconceptions.  

 

You seem to do that with a distinctive aesthetic approach. There’s a timelessness to your images. 

I love black-and-white images. It’s because I feel they are timeless. It forces one to focus more on what’s happening in the photos rather than the colours. My style of photography is raw. I like to get close to the individuals I’m documenting. I want people to experience what’s happening in the photo and not just stare at it.  

 

I’ve also noticed your images focus quite heavily on male bodies and subjects, on both the protesters’ and police side. There’s often a muscular male presence, though it is not always threatening or violent – you seem to create an ambiguity around men and their power.

It’s funny to me that you say that. I said to myself recently, ‘Wow, I photograph a lot of males’. I thought about this for a long time one day and realised it’s because growing up I was always surrounded by men: my dad and his friends, or my male cousins. I grew up in a house with brothers. I enjoy being around a lot of men. But at the same time, I see how society views males and how they’re limited to how they express themselves because they’re forced to live up to a perception of being strong, resulting in them not showing much emotion. I feel I’m naturally drawn to that male energy or that energy is drawn to me. I have a clear understanding of women because I am one, but men, I try to understand things from their perspectives more and share it. Perhaps it’s because they’re the opposite sex from what I identify as. I often use my camera to try to clear up misconceptions placed upon the misunderstood, and for me, Black men are the most misunderstood people in the world. The Black man is forced to be silent and only show strength. I like to focus on both their strength and vulnerability.  

A young girl sits in her art class in a daze. She seemed to be deep in thought with a lot on her mind. This photo is from my series Last Bite of Chocolate City? © Dee Dwyer.

“[…] as a grown woman, when I have to get into [men’s] spaces, I carry that same energy – by letting them know through my dominant presence that I will fearlessly tell their stories as well. I aim to show the world what it’s made of at the end of the day. This includes the good, bad and ugly.”

Is this a call-to-arms against the patriarchy in a way?

It’s just me letting the brothers know that I see them, hear them and understand them. It’s me letting them know that their stories are safe with me. I am my brothers’ keeper. I always have been and always will be. 

 

When you photograph white men, are you ever fearful?

The males I photograph who clearly don’t like me because of the colour of my skin and not the content of my character, you know, the white supremacists? Growing up, I was considered a tomboy. I never backed down from a challenge from the boys – they all respected me because of this. Now, as a grown woman, when I have to get into [men’s] spaces, I carry that same energy – by letting them know through my dominant presence that I will fearlessly tell their stories as well. I aim to show the world what it’s made of at the end of the day. This includes the good, bad and ugly. 

On May 31, 2020 Protesters at the protest for George Floyd and others who's been mistreated by Police in Washington, D.C. Telling a Black Officer that "At the end of the Day her badge doesn't matter because at the end of the day she black."

How do you feel about the dynamics of protests, the fear some people have of them? Is it an effective way of galvanising change? 

It’s most definitely effective! It’s a way to put pressure on people who aren’t making wise and respectful decisions to change their ways of thinking through action. If it’s led right, it’s a strong action with results leading to change. It’s not a pretty fight, it’s rough, mentally and physically tiring. As John Lewis stated, there’s nothing wrong with getting into good trouble. 

 

You’ve been present at so many landmark protests in recent years, what do you think defines protest in our era? 

In our times, protests for a good cause could be defined as movements needed to put an end to long-lasting trauma and the wrongdoings against the misunderstood and unappreciated people of the world.  

Charlotte Jansen

Charlotte Janson is an arts journalist and editor-at-large of Elephant Magazine. Jansen has written for publications including The Guardian, The Financial Times, ELLE, Wallpaper*, Artsy, Vice and Frieze, and has authored two books on photography: Girl on Girl, Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze (2017) and Photography Now (2021). Jansen is also the presenter of the Dior Talks podcast series on the Female Gaze.