lense on baltimore: the community photo-activism of devin allen

September 15, 2017
By Tirhakah Love, AFROPUNK contributor

Devin Allen is best known for the photo that graced the April 30, 2015 cover of TIME Magazine, a seminal image of the Baltimore Uprising, which took place in the aftermath of the extralegal killing of Freddie Gray by members of the city’s police department. As the events of that cruel month unfolded, the now-29 year-old photographer became Baltimore’s primary documentarian, leaning in on the communally experienced insecurities, secrets, and charms of its Black ‘hood life. His images were (are!) live and direct: vital visages of the city’s people — many of whom Allen knows personally — and the decaying infrastructure that can barely support them.

While Allen has received praise from all over the globe — interviewed by Oprah, partnered with the B’more-based Under Armour, recently named the inaugural fellow at The Gordon Parks Foundation — he has always shifted the celebrity focus away from himself and toward the West Baltimore neighborhood he grew up in. Just as Allen’s images are a reflection of the relationships he’s nurtured over time, he is looking towards the city’s future, having launched Through Their Eyes, a local youth arts organization that equips underserved young people with the tools to articulate themselves through photography.

Allen’s latest work, a collection of black-and-whites entitled A Beautiful Ghetto, presents an artist more interested in personal and social intimacy than overt political declarations, hinting at the lonesomeness that exists in every urban environment but hardly focusing on it. The book is a carefully curated cascade of undulating emotion, capturing the vicissitudes of ‘hoods around the globe, and is divided in two parts: first, the neighborhood as Freddie Gray knew it, titled “Ghetto,” and the second, depicting the protests following his death, called “Uprising.” It’s a localized all-seeing-eye approach that portrays both the dash of Black children on bikes during the earliest moments of block party festivities, as well as the quiet mourning of a Black boy visiting one of many man-made memorials featuring roped-up plush toys and love notes, with equal respect for detail, for each subject, and the overall scene. The included essays and poems — by art and sociology academics, locals, friends, as well as a note called “My Baltimore” by Devin’s mother — engage his work through both intimate and historic lenses.    

When I spoke to Allen about his book, the city he grew to love, and the upcoming exhibition of his images at The Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, NY, it was immediately obvious why his subjects, even the candid ones, were pictured so naturally. Words tumble out of Allen with an ease and fluidity that undoubtedly cross-over to the portraits of his hometown. But it wasn’t always this way.

“I actually use to hate this city,” he admits early on. “I lost one of my first friends when I was just getting out of high school. Baltimore changed so fast. We used to get in a lot of fights, people would get stabbed here and there or hit by bats at parties. People would get killed but it never hit home for me. But once it hit home, it never stopped hitting home. By the time I hit 25, the number of friends I’d lost hit double-digits.”

The rising loneliness insulated him in his West Baltimore neighborhood until he borrowed a Nikon from a friend in an effort to make some cash selling t-shirts. “With photography, it gave me a certain type of peace. It also forced me to remove myself from that bubble. When you’re photographing, you’re not the subject matter. So you end up photographing this other subject matter, [and] if you allow yourself, you start to look at the world differently. And when you start to see photographs of the people, you start to see how different and unique [Baltimore] is.”

A Beautiful Ghetto is a reminder of the unfortunate and consistent tension in depicting Black children. The inherent, miraculous joy of bringing a Black child into a world perpetually scheming for their extinction, nestles against the fact of premature death often manifesting in little Black boys and girls who experience a stunted existence by either growing up too fast or not growing up at all. “A lot of kids deal with post-traumatic stress and we don’t talk about it. Some of these kids are ten years old but are mentally 20,” Allen says.

One prime example of this is a print taken behind an apartment complex showing four adolescent boys — two grasping tightly onto low-hanging iron bars and the other two sitting on the curb looking on — framing one of the sitting boys in a crater denting the concrete walls. Here is Black youth learning to live, breathe, and play in dilapidation. It is, at once, a sign of immeasurable persistence, and of a wider-scale apathy towards their enduring spirit.

Allen picks up on each quietness because he realizes how important it is to get Black skin right — even when only using a black and white palette. To a certain degree, his lighting demands led to the slight delay in the book’s release.

“I like deep, deep contrasts,” he says. “They kept whitening my images and I’m like, ‘No!’ You can’t go wrong with more Black. Black is something I wanted to make beautiful in this book so I crushed them. I wanted to make them pop.” The photos slap. Allen’s skill at framing the intricacies of Black bodies  — the wrinkles and laugh-lines of zoomed-out subjects in motion; the glossy, velvet sheen of sweat on a barber attentively styling a patient Black woman’s eyebrows — mirrors the rich tonality of Charles Burnett and the cinema-like production qualities of Parks’ images.

While Allen documents how Black survival is founded upon the bedrock of Black communion, one does notice how his lense is readily attracted to cisgendered Black men. Representations of Black femininity in A Beautiful Ghetto are relegated to girlhood or matriarchy. Those photos are as lovingly taken as the rest but there is a gender imbalance between subjects. When asked about that choice, Allen recalls the hurt of misrepresentation in mainstream media following Gray’s case and others like it: “You know, Black men get demonized so much. The first thing [the media] did when [Gray] passed, was talk about his record. I see myself in Freddie Gray, so when I’m taking these photos of these men, I’m seeing myself in a lot of them.” Within such a spiral of misrepresentation, Allen admits that he had to learn to love Black men, a continuously undergoing process. “I still struggle with the concept. Every Black man I see, I wanna see him as a brotha. I’m trying to deprogram myself.”

Allen says that he, like most men, is ill-equipped to tell Black women’s stories; so instead, he provides women and girls with the tools to tell it themselves, “It’s so easy for me to document everything about the Freddie Gray story because I’m a Black man, I’m from Baltimore, all those things click in my brain. At the same time, I could never photograph and tell a Black woman’s story in its entirety. So my big thing would be to help other women activate their photography. ‘I can’t tell your story, but if I can get you a camera, help you get into school, help you with your idea, that’s a whole new thing.’ It’s about activating each other.”

It’s the same way that Allen, himself, began to engage with Baltimore’s uniqueness. Once photography burst his personal bubble, he chose to shoot in black and white, use a 35mm, and remove captions from photos in order to reflect the genuine connections and new knowledge he picked up while snapping his city. Though he wears a lot of different hats — photographer, educator, conversationalist, Black man — Allen maintains that what he does isn’t all that special; what does make it special is the city. “My obligation is to Baltimore. I owe Baltimore my career and my life. I want to make as much change as I can before I become disconnected.”

Devin Allen’s exhibit ‘A Beautiful Ghetto’ is on-view at The Gordon Parks Foundation, September 15 – November 18, 2017. The book is out now on Haymarket Books.

[Image Credit, photo of Devin Allen: FJ Hughes]