WORDS: DIAMOND HILLYER
Sharp shooting to beautify Baltimore.
Devin Allen, the 27-year-old shutterbug rocking a rounded ‘fro and beguiling smile, uniquely marked with a discrete frenulum piercing, is shooting up Baltimore.
From the thriving, black youth of the city’s ghettos to the intricate street art beautifully defacing row homes and abandoned buildings, Allen’s camera has shot almost every image of the urban locale’s compelling culture. However, in his three years immersed in photography, it never occurred to Allen that his work would land on the coveted cover of TIME magazine.
For three weeks, Allen’s lens captured the highly-publicized protests and demonstrations that bubbled up after the untimely death of 25-year-old Freddie Carlos Gray Jr., a black, unarmed Baltimorean man killed by Baltimore City police. Loading his Instagram with gripping images, major media outlets such as BBC and TIME tapped the follow button to track the amateur photog’s front row coverage of the events. The world witnessed firsthand how Allen’s shots of one of B-More’s most trying times were worth much more than just a thousand words.
“We took our city back and reunited,” Allen says, gazing out of the Reginald Lewis Museum’s broad windows. His dark eyes gleamed when he spoke of Charm City. “We still have a lot of issues, yes, but I saw a community come together. I saw people who would never come into the city come in and help. A lot of beautiful things were born from the uprising.”
Bred from Maryland’s largest and most populated metropolis, he’d only ever known Baltimore to be his home. He dwelled on both ends of Baltimore’s region continuum, from the urbanized sections of Baltimore City to the provincial borders of Baltimore County. Yale Heights, Emerson Village, Garrison Boulevard and other west Baltimore locales cultivated Allen’s upbringing.
The real life “chocolate city”—housed just 40 miles north of the nation’s capital, which slackly occupies the nickname—is what sculpted him into the black man he is today. “Baltimore made me strong,” he says of his hometown, which has a 63 percent black population. “I fought a lot growing up. Personally, spiritually, emotionally and mentally, I’m able to handle a lot of the things the average person can’t. It made me a well-rounded person, despite all of my success. It hasn’t gone to my head because I still know where I came from. I’m forever humble for my city and who it made me.”
Charm City was also responsible for Allen’s first experience with photography. Using a department store-bought Coolpix camera, Allen shot simple pictures to print on T-shirts for a poetry night he put together with friends. His interest peaked in more advanced camera systems like Nikon’s D5100 and Canon SLRs soon after, citing Gordon Parks, Robert Houston and Tony Barboza on his list of photog faves. Allen’s visceral connection to their work might have compelled him to pick up his camera on the days of the uprising as well. But even more embedded in him than his attraction to the art form is the grim weekend that pushed him closer to it.
“I can only do but so much with my ten fingers. When you look at it, is the issue just with racism and police brutality? There’s also things within our own communities that are happening where we don’t support each other.” —Devin A.
“I didn’t start taking photography seriously until I lost both of my friends,” he says, noting that he might have been dead if he didn’t have a photo shoot on his to-do list. Unfortunately, one of Allen’s best friends was shot seven times in front of his own house. Right afterwards, Allen went to pay his respects to the friend’s mother and saw his other close friend there, distraught. “I gave him a hug, told him I love him and then I had to run to this building to get some pictures,” Allen says. “I told him that when he got himself together he could just meet me there in an about an hour.” His friend was shot in the head within that same 60-minute span. “I lost two of my closest friends in one weekend. From there, I had to take photography very seriously. If it wasn’t for photography, I could’ve been with either one of them.”
Prior to the protests behind Gray’s death, Allen wasn’t a stranger to the activism scene. Baltimore’s peaceful demonstrations for Ferguson’s Michael Brown and international concerns like the Palestine-Israel conflicts had been long logged into his memory cards. But after Gray’s passing, there was a certain energy brewing in B-More that words alone simply couldn’t do justice to. “We’re talking about a city that has been deprived for so many years and with so many issues,” he says. “I knew at some point all of that tension would be released, from the drug issues, to the school funding, to the housing, the murder rates. And the one thing about my city is that we don’t fear police. They don’t.”
At first, Allen planned to solely dedicate his socials to Gray and the uprisings (“I’m glad that you say ‘uprising.’ People might call it the ‘Baltimore Riots’ when there were only two”). Void of any post-processing or editing, he used a simple camera-to-phone sequence to share his work. The process was straightforward: shoot the images raw, transfer them to his phone and post directly from there. Among the vivid, black-and-white portraits were a policeman with a single tear trailing down his cheek, a man carrying his young son whose tiny arms were held up in surrender, and Baltimore’s people screaming, chanting and crying with balled fists raised in protest.
Despite the daunting atmosphere Allen immersed himself in for nearly a month, the positive aspects outweighed all the bad. “This forced people to connect with other people they never would have communicated with. Yes, it was a trying time, but the media made it seem like we just destroyed our city completely. It wasn’t that.” In short, let go of the “poor burning CVS” narrative that flooded CNN’s coverage at the time. “They were actually stocking up the price on the medication there,” he says of the now-gone Pennsylvania Avenue pharmacy. “They were charging more than surrounding counties like Columbia, Woodlawn and Milford Mill, financially raping the poor people. A lot of the buildings that you saw that they said we burned down were already like that.”
Amidst the destroyed infrastructure, Allen’s photos were beginning to build a following on social media. He uploaded his images online, posting them uncredited and trolls abused the moment by turning them into memes or falsely claiming them as their own. BBC and Fusion Magazine traced the pictures back to Allen, seeking interviews and coverage even after the protests, but the call from TIME felt almost too good to be true.
“I didn’t believe it was them,” Allen says. He maintained a “whatever” attitude as they told him their plans for a post on the official TIME blog. Allen’s Instagram follower count bumped from 10,000 to 20,000. “From there, I just kept documenting,” he says. “When the CVS was burned down and Mondawmin Mall was looted, things didn’t just go away after that. There were still stories to be told.” TIME kept in contact, telling him they’d put his images in a full spread of the May issue.
Nothing short of tears of joy, Allen immediately contacted his family to tell them the good news. The photo of a man charging down an empty street with a bandana covering his face, a line of gun-wielding officers organized behind him, was the foundation of this premise and caused Paul Moakley, TIME’s deputy editor of photography, to offer an exciting proposition. Though the magazine had already had a cover planned for its May issue, Allen’s photo had caused some reconsideration.
“They told me they didn’t want to get my hopes up, but it looked amazing to them for the cover,” Allen recalls, noting that Moakley promised to call back with an update. “The next day, I woke up and checked Twitter to see all these notifications. All I saw was the actual cover all over Twitter with, ‘Amateur Photographer From Baltimore Snags The Cover of Time.’ I called everybody, and they just cried. I cried.”
Aside from that famed cover image, Allen’s photographs tell a greater story of his stomping grounds, which include the good, the bad and the ugly. “I call my city a beautiful ghetto because at the end of the day, it’s beautiful. There are people down on their luck with next to nothing. There are kids who are raising their own siblings. There are people addicted to heroin and crack, but at the end of the day they don’t give up. My pictures show how strong people at the bottom actually are.”
“Good” might be an understatement for Devin’s photos, though, considering his work has taken him all over the world. Skipping overseas to Manila, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo, he felt connected to every culture he transcended. His excursions opened his eyes and made him realize his city was a “cakewalk” compared to what other parts of the world were up against. They also account for his repositioning in social activism. It’s easy to plug him and his work into the Black Lives Matter movement, but he rejects it. Yes, he covered the events that blanketed his own city, but he did not base it around a particular social cause. Allen says he doesn’t stand for everything movements such as Black Lives Matter believe in frankly because he doesn’t feel they are inclusive enough.
“At the end of the day, when you’re exclusive to one movement, you disconnect from the rest of the world,” he says. “The United States is very disconnected from the rest of the world. We live in a fishbowl, and I’ve been outside that fishbowl. I’ve been in the ocean. So I see greater trials and tribulations around the world.”
Backlash during an AfroPunk festival gig, where he photographed transsexuals, further drove his point home. “They fail to realize that even in the black community, we exclude the gay and trans community,” he says. “That’s sad. At the same time, me being a male, people won’t understand that. I think black lives only matter depending on the area or media it attracts. I don’t agree with that, and I don’t like that. At the same time, I can only do but so much with my ten fingers. When you look at it, is the issue just with racism and police brutality? There’s also things within our own communities that are happening where we don’t support each other.”
Allen’s disassociation from Black Lives Matter, however, certainly has not rendered him colorblind. Many of the hurdles faced on his way to success were directly related to his melanin count. While his white counterparts received gifts, support and other benefits from major camera manufacturers like Leica, he was shot down almost every time for being “too controversial.”
“I tried reaching out to other camera companies,” he says. “The most I could get was a discount on a $7,000 camera. I had reached out to Leica, and they said they didn’t do sponsorships. I explained what I was doing with the kids, and told them I’d love one of their cameras to document the story. The representative told me that they could give me one camera for a month or two, and every image I took, I would have to give them the rights to every image. I knew it didn’t sound right, so I passed on that.”
A later incident confirmed his skeptical theories. He met a Parisian director who came to Baltimore with a Leica camera in hand. When he asked where he got the unreleased model, the man matter-of-factly replied, “Oh, Leica just gave it to me.” Of course the disappointment was there. “It’s not just about the free stuff,” Allen says. “I could care less about that. I just needed the support. [The director] said, ‘If it were me or another young, white photographer, you would be in space somewhere. You’d be out of this world and very well taken care of.’ So, it hurt because I know I have good work. But, like I said, it’s made me stronger right along with Baltimore.”
When Allen’s not strapped to his gear, he’s got plenty going on. He was granted the opportunity to shoot Golden State Warrior MVP Steph Curry in Asia through a budding relationship with Under Armour. He’s also giving back to his hometown in tremendous ways with “Inspiring the Youth.” The program he started as his own teaches Baltimore’s inner-city youth photography and image development skills. Russell Simmons and Michael Skolnik even invested in the young photographer, aiding him with $20,000 dollars. Prior to the generous loan, Allen raised $3,000 from a GoFundMe he started for the program, with the website’s creator topping off the amount with his own generous donation. The blessings didn’t end there. Behemoth digital corporation Samsung dropped in to offer a helping hand as well.
“They’re the only camera brand that reached out that took a liking not just to my work, but to my mission,” Allen says. The company sent him equipment and backed his projects, forming an “amazing” relationship with the budding photog. “I want to connect that relationship with Under Armour, and they possibly do things to take my work global.”
Although Allen’s photography has led him to this point, he’s letting his inner-self guide his path. “I want to see where my heart takes me. I want to be more spiritual and more in tune with the world. I want to be able to live outside of barriers and go off the grid. My life goal is to be great and change the world. I want to break barriers where my color won’t be an issue. It’s always going to be a problem to some people. But I want to be free.”