Capturing the Hopeful Side of Washington D.C. on 35 mm

It’s easy to let the 24-hour news cycle negatively color your perspective on the goings-on in the United States’ capital. But, as a Washington, D.C. resident, Andy Karr has gotten a bit tired of the doom-and-gloom rhetoric, and Hollywood’s skewed portrayals of the city he calls home. As a way to open his own aperture, Andy spent the last two summers intentionally documenting the district’s thriving cycling community. As we roll into what will surely be a chaotic election year, take a moment to pause and consider the other side of D.C. in Andy’s wonderful gallery…

“Very sad driving through Washington, D.C., and seeing the filth and the decay…”

“A filthy and crime ridden embarrassment to our nation…”

“Washington, DC is a ‘swamp’ … that is reflective of the swamp mentality…”

“… get out of this city, go out to where the real people are at across our country …”

Washington, D.C. is not a swamp. Not literally—the geography is hilly, rocky, and biodiverse. Rising to 410 feet (125 meters) above sea level at its highest point, it is an undulating, forested landscape of deep valleys, streams, and rivers that despite (or maybe because of) its population density is home to coyotes, beavers, foxes, deer, hawks, and—in a patriotic twist—bald eagles.

Nor is it a swamp figuratively: it’s a diverse and vibrant community of over 650,000 real people. A tiny minority of them are politicians or work in politics. A few of them have come here with dreams of changing the world, but most of us are just trying to pay our bills, live our lives in peace, and have a little fun on the weekends.

Washington, D.C. hosts an equally diverse and vibrant cycling culture. Despite ugly misrepresentations in right-wing media and frequent characterizations on TV and in movies as a perpetual disaster zone, the version of Washington I see reflected in the people who ride bikes here is a strong community with abundant local pride, a love of the outdoors, and a genuine sense of adventure much bigger than our 68.3 square miles might imply.

My goal in publishing this photoset here is pretty simple: to chip away at misconceptions about America’s capital grounded in fearmongering, Hollywood dramatizations, and political division. I just want people who like to ride bikes to see Washington through the eyes of other people who like to ride bikes. These photos, on the surface, may feel like an odd fit for The Radavist’s pages. They are nestled in between photographs of golden aspens and sweeping mountains and interrupting the flow of dream-worthy cycling destinations. But, on any given weekend, there are thousands of people in this city riding a bike to get around, going on a roadie group ride, heading out for a gravel adventure on the C&O canal, or even hitting one of a couple of local singletrack segments within the city limits.

Over the course of two summers (2022 and 2023), I loaded rolls of 35 mm Kodak Eastman Vision 3 cinematic film (in a not so subtle nod to D.C.’s frequent use as a a setting for some of Hollywood’s more far-fetched plots) into one of my cameras and attended a broad range of D.C.’s bike activities. These photos nonetheless represent my perspective alone, and can’t possibly capture the range of sub-cultures and experiences here, but I did my best to open my own aperture and see the city through renewed eyes.

Every photograph in this gallery was taken within Washington, D.C.’s 68.3 square miles. You’ll find: one of the locally famous wheelie rideouts (one of the most physically demanding photoshoots I have ever done); the start line of an alleycat organized by D.C.’s very-much-alive-and-well bike-messenger scene; bike-oriented cafes and shops; an unsanctioned midnight criterium organized by Saturday Night Bike Club; a popular, long-running, and sometimes C1 level USAC Cyclocross race; what is probably the nation’s longest, continually running regular Coffee Outside meetup; a popular and welcoming weekly bike polo meetup; and, a Bike Party that regularly brings out thousands of bicycle riders every month.

In between those races, events, and meetups, there are pictures of old friends who grew up here riding mountain bikes on wooded singletrack right out their back door, group rides of stretchy-clothed roadies, and recreational bicycle riders enjoying nice weather who would probably never call themselves “cyclists.” There’s prolific, multi-discipline, multi-time national champion Libbey Sheldon who is inspiring and supporting the next generation of professional cyclocross racers in the U.S. through CXHAIRS Devo; there is Leah Fantle and her mobile bike repair shop Upshift DC; award-winning and world-traveling filmmaker, community organizer, and bike racer Kwame Edwards; and Sheila Mahadevan, founder and board chair of Melanin Base Miles, a D.C.-based cycling team and scholarship-granting organization working to increase racial diversity in gravel cycling and racing. The intertwining cycling cultures here are, in short, amazing.

Cycling, like living, in Washington D.C. is not without its challenges. The cost of living is high. Spiraling violence, frequent robberies, and aggressive and careless driving keep city cycling less carefree than I wish it was. Residents of the District of Columbia have no vote in Congress, and every local ordinance is subject to potential intervention and overturn by a national legislature that, at present, has a majority hell-bent on eroding the political and social rights of the local population here. For better or worse, we live with the consequences of political decisions over which the population of this city has no say. Most of us are less interested in what the 24-hour news cycle, cinematic portrayals, or political propaganda make people think or feel about this city, than things like making time in our busy schedules for bike polo on Wednesday night, the Tuesday morning gravel ride, coffee outside Friday, or the cross race this weekend.

Washington, D.C. is an international city that draws people from all over the nation and world for work or for tourism, and no matter who you are, where you come from, or what interests and passions you have, there is bound to be a welcoming and enthusiastic community waiting for you here. The people in these photos are mostly seen riding bikes, because that’s the community I know and love. There are other communities as well—a world-class kayaker community, artist communities, a mosaic of vibrant local music scenes—but the cycling community is the one I know best.

A new but already often-cited study, “Orientation Towards the Common Good in Cities”, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found a “positive and significant effect on local helpfulness, neighborhood solidarity, and social organizational participation with increased frequency of bike use over time.” It’s a bit unclear why. The authors say it might have to do with basic “trust” in neighbors with whom cyclists directly interact. I think it’s more likely that, simply, bikes are fun. And when people have fun together, good things happen. As you page through the intentionally symbolic 51 photos of D.C. bike culture in this gallery I hope, no matter where you are today, you see the humanity in these photos and that you remember it the next time you see a scary news segment full of crime statistics or see a fundraising email from a politician promising to “change” Washington. Maybe we don’t need to drain the swamp, but rather, fill it with more people on bikes.