The Photographer Who Captured Baltimore in Protest Is Putting Cameras in the Hands of Local Youth
In 2015, amid the Baltimore uprisings following Freddie Gray’s death, Devin Allen’s photograph of a young black man being chased by a line of police officers featured on the cover of TIME. For many, this is an accolade that comes at the end of a long career. But for the self-taught photographer, then 26, it was only the beginning.
This month, a solo exhibition at The Gordon Parks Foundation, “A Beautiful Ghetto,” brings together 36 works by the now sought-after photographer. But long before his TIME cover, before he appeared on “Oprah” or Beyoncé’s Instagram, Allen was born and raised on the streets of Baltimore. And, dedicated to giving back to his community—particularly, the youth—he’s determined to never forget his roots.
“I didn’t know any photographers growing up,” Allen tells me. “The closest thing I knew to a photographer was probably my grandmother, who carried around a disposable camera and took pictures of all the cookouts and family events.”
The Baltimore that Allen experienced in his youth was underlined by violence and drug dealing; he participated in the latter and has spoken about it candidly. A turning point came in 2009, when his daughter was born and he took on a stable job at an insurance company. And it was in 2011, while helping a friend promote a poetry night in southwest Baltimore, that Allen first picked up a camera.
In step with the rise of Instagram, Allen and his friend looked to photography and social media to build hype for their event. With a borrowed Nikon Coolpix, as he began to witness his peers interact with the camera, he was impossibly hooked. By 2013, Allen convinced his grandmother to lend him her credit card to purchase a “more official” camera—and off he went to pick up a Canon 60D.
“I remember Googling ‘famous black photographers’ and the only photographer’s name that came up was Gordon Parks,” says Allen. Clicking through the seminal photographer’s work, Allen was struck by a 1966 portrait of Muhammad Ali—and consequently, the breadth of images, from shoots with fashion models to civil rights journalism. “After that I was truly intrigued,” he says. With Parks as a role model, he, too, aimed to cover it all.
In the years that followed, he spent his days on Baltimore streets with his camera, while working graveyard shifts at an autism clinic. This led to the defining moment in 2015: When the news broke that 25-year-old Gray had died in police custody due to a fatal spinal injury, Allen was there in a moment’s notice. The now-iconic black-and-white photograph that he published on-the-spot to Instagram would quickly reverberate across the globe, and put the amateur photographer on the map.
Quickly spotted by the editors of TIME, Allen’s photograph became the third-ever non-professional photograph to grace the magazine’s cover. The accompanying text featured “America 1968” crossed out in red pen with “2015” scrawled in the place of the former date, a year that saw mass civil rights riots erupt across the country following the execution of Martin Luther King Jr.—particularly in Baltimore. And indeed, it’s a searing photograph that has come to represent an era in the United States that has heart-wrenching similarities to the Civil Rights movement.
But even more impactful than that iconic frame is the body of work that followed. In “A Beautiful Ghetto” (which is also the title of Allen’s newly published monograph), Allen bares the innermost soul of his city. Roughly half of the photographs picture the 2015 uprisings from an insider’s perspective, while the others depict in-between moments of daily life inside his Baltimore community—images that are so often excluded from the city’s media narrative.
“I didn’t want to just show a one-sided Baltimore,” says Allen. “I wanted to show more than just the uprisings.” To do so, he set out to portray the tone of the city; in his words, “what I see, what Freddie Gray saw, growing up in Baltimore. That’s how it started.”
For every photograph of a fist raised in protest or cop car’s shattered windshield, Allen shows poetic daily subtleties like a young boy leaning back on an urban swing set; a man getting his hair trimmed; or a woman with plastic shopping bags, walking alone beside a boarded-up building, looking over her shoulder.
Some photographs, though, are decidedly grim. Among them are shots of a discarded syringe that lays on the sidewalk; a young boy with a T-shirt that reads “we must stop killing each other;” and a teenager paying respects to a street-side memorial with a teddy-bear and fresh flowers, surrounded by litter.
After the death of Gray, Allen says, he was looking for words to describe his community. “It’s so hard. You love it some days, you hate it some days, it’s all about where you are,” he says, noting that the words “beautiful” and “ghetto” are not often associated with one another.
One of his favorite images shows a mother standing on a stoop while taking out her daughter’s braids. “It’s so Baltimore, and you never really see those beautiful moments in the media, of proud black mothers taking care of their children,” he says. “The African-American community is always talked about in the ghetto, for the lack of fathers, the struggle,” he adds.
There are, of course, plenty of protest images that depict the struggle. Like Parks, Allen captures everything—but not by shooting from the hip. His precisely timed images capture decisive moments, like a chair thrown by protesters caught mid-air, the moment before it crashes through a restaurant window; or an African-American police officer as his eyes fill with tears.
To Allen, one of the most meaningful images shows a father marching with his son; the small child raises his arms in the gesture of “hands up, don’t shoot.” “That touches me, being a black man and a father,” he says. “We have to teach our kids so young—I was told young—how to not only interact with police but to avoid them.” He recalls his mother teaching him defense mechanisms for “how to survive the police,” like what to do if a police car pulls up behind you.
In Baltimore, Allen says, “a lot of people think you’re basically born with handicaps,” whether through education or safety. In recent years, Allen’s work has earned him due recognition and promising opportunities, including a contract with Under Armour, his current fellowship at the Gordon Parks Foundation, an exhibition at Philadelphia’s Slought Foundation, and acquisitions into the permanent collections of major museums like the Smithsonian and The Studio Museum in Harlem. With each opportunity, he’s become all the more inspired to give back to his community.
“My voice being heard is one of the best things that has happened to me,” he says, “but it also allows me to give a voice to other people that didn’t have one, or didn’t have voices that could reach.”
To do so, Allen is devoted to teaching photography to inner-city Baltimore youth. “I wanted to take what I’ve gained and make it easier for kids who might want to get involved,” he says, reflecting on how his life might have been different had someone given him a camera, or artistic guidance, at age 16. Through a program he launched with support from the Gordon Parks Foundation, he teaches classes in underfunded Baltimore schools and provides local kids with cameras.
“As a kid, I’ve been in the street, I’ve been arrested,” he says, so “we connect on a whole other level than an outsider coming in because I’ve walked in their shoes.” In this way, he inspires students to chase their dreams.
Among his most important pupils is his daughter Amari, who documented her first protest last year when she was just six years old (though she prefers to shoot scenes from nature, he says). After police broke the arm of 24-year-old Aaron Winston during an arrest at a Baltimore nightclub in 2016, “we shot together,” he says. His daughter used a point-and-shoot gifted by Samsung as part of Allen’s youth program.
“I was always told that I’ll be one and done and that will be the greatest accomplishment of my career,” Allen says of the TIME cover. But his impact far transcends the power of that single image, which in itself has become a lasting emblem for social justice. Through his work, Allen has made sure that a rising generation of Baltimore youth understand their true, and often unsung potential. Artistic or otherwise. “And that’s probably the best thing,” he says.