Photographer Devin Allen uses his craft to inspire Baltimore youth

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When Devin Allen comes to talk to students in inner city schools, few children think one of Baltimore’s most prominent photographers comes from their neighborhood. “They say, ‘There’s no way this guy has done all this and he’s from West Baltimore,'” Allen says. “As soon as I open my mouth, they say ‘Yes, you from here.'”

It’s not just Baltimore’s youth who are surprised by Allen’s overnight success. The self-taught photographer’s career changed dramatically in 2015 when a photo he took during the Baltimore uprising – a series of protests in response to the arrest and consequent death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody – went viral. Days later, the picture of a young black man running down the street with police in riots on his heels appeared on the front page of Time magazine, making Allen only the third amateur photographer to get his work on the front page of the publication.

Opportunities followed for Allen, then in his mid-20s. In 2017, he became the first fellow in the Gordon Parks Foundation to recognize Allen’s dedication to social justice through art, placing him near the groundbreaking black photographer whose photojournalism of civil rights issues, poverty, and the African-American experience inspired generations. by artists. Allen’s first book, “A Beautiful Ghetto,” was published the same year. In 2020, he made the Time cover again, this time with a photograph from a Black Trans Lives Matter protest. His second book, “No Justice, No Peace: From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter,” is due out in October.

“There is documentary photography, but then there is documentary photography that has this confidence and humanitarian aspects to it,” said Peter Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation. “I have seen so many images of protests and demonstrations and marches, especially in the wake of George Floyd. What stood out to me about Devin’s work is the humanity in the subjects’ faces.

“It reminds me so much of Parks’ work when he photographed the Nation of Islam, and the Malcolm X work and his work with March on Washington on civil rights. I saw as many parallels to images as he had. He captured the same essence. in humanity in the subject, ”says Kunhardt.

The young people Allen talks to do not care about scholarships, book publications, or magazine covers. It is when Allen tells them that he regularly photographs basketball star Stephen Curry for the Baltimore-based sports equipment company Under Armor that they recover. This is Allen’s entrance to let them know that his life did not start so differently from theirs.

Allen grew up in the West Forest Park neighborhood, the son of a strong matriarch. “I was spoiled,” he says. “I did not have all the designer things I wanted, but all the snacks in the world and electricity always on.” Still, Allen started selling drugs in high school. It lasted only six years, but at the time, Allen says he had lost more than five close friends due to gun violence.

When he became a father at the age of 21, he decided that his busy days were over. With street photography, Allen became obsessed with documenting his surroundings and teaching himself the technical aspects through YouTube tutorials. Photography, he says, saved his life in ways that are not always metaphorical. When his best friend was killed, Allen realized how easily he could have been present. “The only reason I was not with him is because I went to take pictures,” he says. “I turned to alcohol for a while to cope. But photography was really my medium to get rid of that stress.”

Nothing could prepare him for what it would feel like to have all eyes on him. The first Time cover brought national attention, but his success in the wake of a society in crisis weighed on Allen, who says he attempted suicide shortly after he became famous. “My success is built on Freddie Gray’s broken back. It is in the back of my mind every day, ”says Allen, whose daily participation in the month-long uprising contributed to the stress. “We were tear gas, pepper sprayed. I was harassed by the police. … I did not sleep. I did not take care of myself. I’m dealing with my own personal PTSD and depression that I got from growing up here, ”he says. “It was just too overwhelming. I cracked, you know.”

It was shortly thereafter that Allen, now 34, felt he needed his own brand of activism to develop. “Photography saved me mentally, physically and emotionally and I feel like it could do the same for so many younger kids,” he says. He launched a GoFundMe campaign for his program called Inspire the Youth in June 2015, and it quickly gained local attention before reaching Russell Simmons, who donated $ 25,000.

Allen was equipped with cameras and enthusiasm, but his initial efforts fell somewhat flat. “I was thinking, ‘Who wants to learn to photograph?’ The kids cursed me out, “he recalls with a laugh. But when 20 students had dropped to five, he had curated a small but passionate group. His next attempt, in collaboration with Windsor Hill Elementary / Middle School, resulted in such great interest , that Allen held an essay competition to select 10 students.Their work resulted in a photo exhibition at the Baltimore Art Center Motor House.The following workshop, in the Kids Safe Zone, received national media attention.Although his own career and pandemic have made it difficult to drive a regular program, Allen continues to visit schools and regularly distributes cameras to children in the community – an estimated 600 to date.

Recently, while on a photo shoot for the opening credits of the HBO series “We Own This City,” Allen ran into Keshana Miller, 20, seven years after teaching her in the Kids Safe Zone. “She came and showed me some of her latest work, which she has done with her phone, and told me how she is still into photography,” he says. Impressed by her dedication, Allen promised to provide Miller with a camera. As Miller prepares to finish high school this summer, despite some setbacks, she says art is crucial to her life: “Art is a part of me. It helps me become a better person because it motivates me . ”

Allen acknowledges that staying at home has categorized him with the civil rights movement and street photography, but does not see it as much of a niche as a vocation. Staying in Baltimore also makes him more accessible to the people he wants to inspire: “Ultimately, when I’m old and I can no longer hold a camera stable, I will measure my own personal success by how many children I saved, “he says.” That’s why I’m still in Baltimore.

Carita Rizzo is a writer based in Paris.

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