The Invisible Wall Opens Window into Life East of the River

By Phil Hutinet on August 13, 2014



Introducing Dimitri Reeves. Image courtesy of the artist.
Introducing Dimitri Reeves. Image courtesy of the artist.

Editor’s Note: This article is published concurrently in Capital Community News’ East of the River August 2014 issue.  Find it on page 37.

Susana Raab’s imagery could not be more insightful. Many have tried to explain what makes East of the River so unique from the rest of Washington but few have actually been able to successfully explain it up until now. Raab’s 20 picture essay speaks so eloquently, so simply, capturing so many of the facets that make East of the River such a remarkably distinct place, it is a wonder why an exhibition like this did not come to fruition sooner.

Concurrent with Raab’s The Invisible Wall, the Seventh Annual East of the River Exhibition next door at Honfleur Gallery showcases a plurality of East of the River voices including two fellow documentary photographers, Gabriela Bulisova and Lawrence Green. While Bulisova focuses her attention on the plight of returned citizens attempting to assimilate back into their East of the River communities and Lawrence Green documents the redefining of African-American beauty by East of the River women, Raab’s photographic essay examines all aspects of East of the River life.

So how does this invisible wall disconnect East of the River from the rest of the city and make it so different? By their very nature, walls divide and separate; people build them to keep some people in and other people out. For Susana Raab the wall that separates East of the River from the rest of the city is invisible just as class and socioeconomic status are.

Both native Washingtonians and newcomers alike have an image of what “East of the River” means.   “I began to realize that I had created a lot of what I believed East of the River neighborhoods to be in my own mind” explains Raab. “So I decided to go behind this wall, some of which exists in reality and some of which I had created I my mind. My goal was to try to understand what was actually going on.”

Shortly after completing graduate work in photography, Raab began working at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in 2010 at which time she came in regular contact with neighborhoods East of the River. While she had spent time in 2008 photographing East of the River neighborhoods, the images Raab captured for The Invisible Wall date from 2010 through 2014.

Raab employs an extremely conspicuous process to photograph her subjects. Using a 4×5 camera from the 1940s, she makes her presence known. “I do not want to take something without permission” she explains, “I am deliberate [when taking pictures] and in no way want to hide it.” Naturally, a camera that large and seemingly anachronistic in an age of pocket cameras and cell phones, garnered a lot of attention from Raab’s potential subjects.

Available online at, Raab mapped out where she lugged her 4×5 camera. From Deanwood to Congress Heights, Raab’s images masterfully hold two contradictory ideas in balance; they show things as they are, “objectively,” that is to say without judgment, while simultaneously drawing feelings of empathy from the viewer.

The body of work embraces it all, the good, the bad and sometimes the just plain odd (at least to non-East of the River residents).   Just as John Waters’ films feel so inexplicably Baltimore, Raab’s images feel so unbelievably East of the River.

For instance, Introducing Dimitri Reeves captures a performance by a young artist named Dimitri Reeves who spontaneously began performing Michael Jackson covers, complete with moon-walk dancing, on a traffic signal box on Good Hope Road in Skyland on a hot, muggy summer day in 2013. Raab captures this oh-so-East-of-the-River moment with breathtaking accuracy.

Cultural diversions notwithstanding, Panther Mom shows a woman seemingly crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue after getting off the bus. However, the subject’s demeanor and gesture suggest that this is no ordinary street crossing, but rather a victory lap. For many people East of the River who do not own a car, the isolation resulting from the area’s steep topography requires the use of several buses to access the metro or major job centers.

St. Elizabeth’s Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Image courtesy of the artist.
St. Elizabeth’s Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Image courtesy of the artist.

As if looking to the future, St. Elizabeth’s Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, shows boarded-up buildings in the background with the recently completed Gateway Pavilion in the foreground complete with state-of-the-art xeriscaping.   This image captures both Congress Heights’ past and its potential future. As real estate prices continue to rise in DC, places like historic Anacostia and Congress Heights, with their metro accessibility and architecturally significant buildings, will soon lure developers. As such, debates over “gentrification” have begun in earnest.

To connect on human level with socioeconomically disadvantaged residents East of the River, one need not look further than the urban landscape in which they live and herein lies Raab’s ingenuity. Raab’s ATM Gives You $1 and Up, subtly illustrates the practice of predatory economics while Fading Victorian, Mapleview Place SE does just the opposite, demonstrating the obvious effects of years of disinvestment.

While having cast a very wide net East of the River, admittedly Raab left out many elements that make up life here. “I could have taken some shots in Hillcrest” she says.   In addition to omitting images of more affluent communities like Hillcrest, Raab also omits scenes of natural beauty found East of the River such as the Anacostia River, the vast forests, parkland and hills that distinguish this area from other parts of Washington.

However, Raab did not intend to exhaustively capture every aspect of East of the River life but rather to take a peek over the invisible wall which she has done convincingly. But then again, is Hillcrest part of the invisible wall? Are residents of these affluent communities hiding behind that wall to keep some of the best residential neighborhoods, surrounded by the natural beauty of East of the River, which includes miles of forested trails, all for themselves?

Normally, Raab shows most of her work away from the areas that she photographs. For the first time, the tables have turned. “I was a little apprehensive about how people from the community were going to react to my work” Raab confesses. Fortunately, she has received nothing but accolades and positive feedback from community members who attended the opening reception, a telling reaction from a group which could include her most vocal critics.

The Invisible Wall is on view at Vivid Solutions Gallery located at 1231 Good Hope Road SE through August 29.

Gallery hours are as follows:

  • Tuesday-Friday noon-5pm
  • Saturday 11am-5pm