Four years ago, a hobby saved Dee Dwyer from what she described as a life of unfulfilled potential. Then she became a photographic storyteller, documenting Black people in her city and across the globe while capturing them in their rawest, most authentic way.
Dwyer’s newest collection of black-and-white prints, titled “Last Bite of Chocolate City?” is on display at the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center (CHACC) on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The exhibition highlights the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Black women, men and children living in Southeast and all the while compelling them to take control of the last frontier of their gentrified city.
“I want people to face the truth and start thinking strategically about saving the culture. We can’t shy away from the truth,” said Dwyer, a photographer-educator often referred to as the “Visual Voice for the People.” “I want people — politicians and people with nonprofits — connecting and getting inspired.”
On July 12, Dwyer launched “Last Bite of Chocolate City?” at the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center (CHACC) on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The public event and another gathering on Sunday that featured Black Alley as the headline performer, attracted several dozen activists, educators, art enthusiasts and community members.
For three hours, guests made their stroll around the gallery of nearly 30 photos, vibed with one another and feasted on healthy hors d’oeuvres to the sounds of DJ Kryptic and intricate wordplay of Aziyrah the Poet.
Beyond the walls of CHACC, Dwyer said she wants to use her talent to tackle the continued economic activity that has displaced more than 100,000 people since the turn of the century.
Since the opening, last September, of the Entertainment & Sports Arena on St. Elizabeths East Campus, located less than a mile from CHACC, it has numerous concerts and entertainment and sports events. Meanwhile, nearby Black business owners, along Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue corridor in downtown Anacostia, fight to maintain their collective presence. Near the Big Chair, the impending Reunion Square construction project has raised questions about the future of housing affordability.
“I want change in Southeast and other Black communities,” Dwyer said in her charge to people with whom her work resonates. “We can get educated and put in work [instead of] complaining.”
For nearly a month, CHACC visitors will see photos that convey the trauma of community and police interactions, the rebuke of white supremacy and youthful expressions.
Dwyer is a former art teacher at the recently shuttered Democracy Prep Congress Heights Public Charter School in Southeast. In the exhibit is a photo taken from the third floor of the school that shows a student wearing a school uniform being slammed against a car by a D.C. police officer. In another picture, a youth holds up their middle finger to a police officer as a sign of rebellion.
These photos count among the several thousand that Dwyer, a divorced single mother of two, has taken since jumping into her profession in 2015. Around that time, she joined her colleagues Briana Monet and award-winning filmmaker Falani Afrika on an excursion to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil during the production of Maestrina de Favela, a film about Elem, a young Brazilian percussionist.
More recently, Dwyer has taken her talents to New York and other U.S. cities where she often shows her work to and connects with fellow photographers. One New York-based visual artist by the name of Howard T. Cash took Dwyer under his wing while immersing her in the culture. He also joined onlookers at the launch of “Last Bite of Chocolate City?”
“Dee listens, so I have no problem telling her, discussing [photography] with her and listening to her. It’s fun working with her and learning through her,” Cash told his fellow guests at CHACC on Friday night. “That’s one of the wonderful things about being with her — hanging out with her best friend and her whole posse. Congratulations. It’s such a wonderful show: the wonderful turnout and the love of your community.”