“My Only Zoom Was My Feet” — Devin Allen On Filming Baltimore in Black and White [Interview]
Baltimore’s own critically acclaimed photographer, Devin Allen, explores the beautifully complicated nature of living in and loving his hometown.
“Two weeks ago I was documenting a crime scene with my youth program. A guy had been shot maybe 15 minutes before we came out. I didn’t even know until the next day that it was my friend, legit a friend that I grew up with in the community that was shot and killed. That triggered something in me—I gotta get more cameras, I gotta touch more kids, because the streets don’t sleep.”
The program that Devin Allen is referring to in our conversation is his two-year-old initiative Through Their Eyes, which spreads “hope and love through art” by training students from districts where arts education programs have been underfunded on how to use photography to express themselves. The streets he’s referring to are the streets of Baltimore. Allen, the now 29-year-old world renowned photographer, finds himself in a different social position than in years before. During the Baltimore uprisings following the death of Freddie Gray, his photos went viral and ultimately amassed global critical acclaim, gaining the attention Time Magazine—only the third time the work of an amateur photographer had been showcased there. Since then Allen has been working diligently on the release his first collection of images available in print titled, A Beautiful Ghetto. But it hasn’t been long since, in an alternate reality, he could have been depicted in one of his own photos, perhaps kicking back on a stoop or posed in front of a $0.99 cent store, celebrating life or defending his right to be alive.
Allen opens A Beautiful Ghetto saying, “I shot the majority of my images on a 35mm prime lens and my zoom was my feet.” This line is a testament to what has helped bring his work into the public consciousness. There is an intimacy between subject and camera that separates Allen’s work in A Beautiful Ghetto from that of your everyday street photographer. That intimacy, can be achieved a number of different ways. But for Devin Allen, it is achieved through proximity. Allen gets up close and personal.
A Beautiful Ghetto is divided into two sections labeled “Ghetto” and “Uprising”. “Ghetto” is comprised of close range and wide-pan shots and features both the commonplace and the unique nature of the city. The photos are staged and unstaged. They feature flashy ATVs which seem to “purr” from the page and hoopties that haven’t shown signs of life in years. There are older disabled citizens and very young children, some missing their baby and adult teeth. There are barbers and the homeless. There are decades-old buildings, now decrepit and black with soot.
The section “Uprising” is focused solely on the events of the 2015 Baltimore rebellion, when everyday citizens took to the streets to to protest the malicious and negligent death of Freddie Gray. One of Allen’s closest friends, D. Watkins beautifully states in the book’s foreword, “Those people out marching for Gray’s justice weren’t career activists or professional protestors — no, they were hurt, disenfranchised black people who constantly felt robbed by the system, just like Devin Allen.” The collection of photos that Allen has curated for the second section of the book perfectly capture Watkins’ ethos. The section is opened by the poem “This Burning House” written by Allen’s childhood friend Tariq Touré, closing with the following lines:
y’all been hearing
are your children’s children
choking on the smoke
The long distance shots portray citizens and police, easily identified by their division in the streets. They feature Baltimore citizens carrying manipulated American flags and signs that read “Rise of the woman = The Rise of the Nation”. They feature children with black power fists raised high, and children dancing as a part of the city’s demonstrations. They feature short range portraits of black police officers who appear torn about where their loyalties lie. “Stop killing our fathers” and “Stop killing our brothers” are scribbled across other signs. Lone women in a sea of protesters cry. There are the remains of exploded cars. There is violence and angst. There is praise and worship. “Ghetto” sets the stage, helping the viewer understand the context of the place that is being visualized and “Uprising” depicts that same community in the face of a militarized police state. There is hate and there is love. It’s a completely human experience captured on a 35mm camera, where Devin’s only zoom was his feet.