Won’t You Be My Neighbor
A photographer turns her eye on the people who make up her everyday community
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Kady Dunlap
Kady Dunlap’s photographs shine a light on community and neighbor relationships. There is no disputing this. And yet Dunlap admits that even she didn’t realize this was the central theme of her work until a few years ago. She was working on a project for a community-based nonprofit in Dallas and explains, “I was shooting their kitchen, their clinic, but I was most drawn to people delivering food to their neighbors. They were my favorite images of the whole project … It’s not the medical clinic, where people are being diagnosed. It’s not the kids getting to play on a safe playground. That is all super important. But I kept coming back to the neighbor images.”
This moment of clarity led her to go back and analyze earlier work — portraits of refugees living side by side, group shots of friends in developing countries whose relationships were based on proximity — and she saw neighbors being woven into most of her prints. Dunlap explains that it can be hard to be a photographer in a new place asking people to take their picture, and if she can create a connection with one person, then oftentimes she can get in with the whole neighborhood.
Dunlap moved into her own home on Avenue H in the North Loop section of Austin 10 years ago and almost immediately started to become friends with her neighbors. “I started walking my dog and seeing my neighbors more,” she says. She describes the instinct as initially practical, since she lives alone, but that over time she and her block-mates really got to know one another. “Having friends nearby is great, so you just turn your neighbors into friends!”
Some of Dunlap’s neighbors have lived in North Loop for most of their lives, and she loves hearing their stories. She lights up when describing the handful of old-timers who built their own homes in post-WWII Austin along the then-dirt roads. She exclaims that there used to be an airplane hangar in the neighborhood: “One of my neighbors, who’s now passed away, he’d just walk up there and fly planes. It’s so cool, you know?” She loves this shared oral history.
When I ask about how she and her fellow Avenue H-ers (with the occasional Avenue G resident) spend time together, she reflects that most evenings they sporadically come together in their front yards as dogs and kids run underfoot. But she also quickly clarifies that a group of friends are on a text chain, the back-and-forth of which will often lead to a walk and dinner at Foreign & Domestic or an official Avenue H (all the way from 45th to 54th) book club meeting.
About a year ago, Dunlap started documenting her neighbors and capturing their distinct traits. She describes this initial series as “I see you sitting reading in your chair, or I see you tending your garden. I’m your neighbor, we know each other, and this is how I see you.”
In honor of our neighborhoods issue, we commissioned Dunlap to recreate and expand on her initial portrait series, which consisted of five images. Years of community revealed itself as neighbor after neighbor streamed into Dunlap’s backyard on a damp spring night. While some were hesitant to have their picture taken, most were excited and proud to have a light shone on their neighborhood and all game to help their friend. Their neighbor.