Photo Credit: Devin Allen
“My Only Zoom Was My Feet” — Devin Allen On Filming Baltimore in Black and White [Interview]
Photo Credit: Adrian O. Walker
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.
Devin Allen is a proud, lifelong resident of Baltimore and he is familiar with it all; the nightlife, who died where, best places to eat, where to go, and where to not go. Devin talks to me passionately about Baltimore and is sure to make clear that he is from West Baltimore, not the East side. His knowledge of the place, matched with his almost innate instinct to protect the culture of West Baltimore are a part of the reason why his feet function just fine as a zoom and photo-focus mechanism. I asked Devin about his feelings toward out of town photographers that have come (and will come) to Baltimore to apply their lens to his city. He mentions to me that an outside perspective is needed but, “Don’t come here trying to blow up, shooting my people and telling a story with no nuance.” The nuance that Allen references here is represented in his ability to capture dope boys and community leaders in the same frame. That nuance has also been vital in shaping the reactions to his work, as he continues to tell me how positive the reception from his community has been. “Sometimes I can’t even get naturally staged shots the way I want because people will see me and now they want to be in photos,” he said chuckling.
In 2015, The Atlantic authored The Brutality of Police Culture in Baltimore, which argued that “years of abuses [in Baltimore] are every bit as egregious as what the Department of Justice documented in Ferguson, Missouri, and as deserving of a national response.” Following the death of Freddie Gray, CNN published a report that found that while Baltimore is located in the richest state in the country, black and white citizens face vastly different realities. Black men ages 20-24 faced an unemployment rate of 37% in 2013 versus 10% of young white men. It was disclosed that Baltimore is home to more than 16,000 vacant buildings, many of which are beautifully and eerily depicted in the first section of A Beautiful Ghetto. 61% of Baltimore’s children were considered low-income in 2013, compared to the 45% national average. Lastly, the life expectancy of a person living in a place like Upton and Druid Heights (which are predominately black) was roughly 20 years shorter than their mostly white neighbors in communities like Roland Park, which had a median income of $90k at the time. These factors and many more, make it difficult to talk about intra-communal violence in Baltimore, especially in the face of police brutality, but it’s affects are tastefully explored in Allen’s latest collection of work. A Beautiful Ghetto gives these numbers and statistics humanity.
To live in Baltimore is to know the evil of police brutality, but also know the feeling of being silenced as you attempt to talk about the pain you experience as a result of gun violence. So far this year, Baltimore has seen 249 homicides (the number jumped from 248 to 249 as I typed this sentence), putting it on track to surpass last year’s ghastly total of 318. Where society and government policy have failed Baltimore’s poor and working class communities, citizens have stepped up to course correct themselves, because to live in Baltimore is also to see people that look like you reflected in local government, and grapple with the reality of not feeling any tangible change. Activists and everyday folks are exploring different methods of engaging the community, from afterschool programs to an annual ceasefire that aims to create one day without violence every year. These attitudes are what makes Devin Allen’s “beautiful ghetto.” Over the phone, Allen tells me, “What Chicago needs is not what Baltimore needs.”
When families of black people killed by police officers aren’t being dragged to podiums to offer up “forgiveness” to the killers of our sons and daughters, we’re being force fed cookie cutter solutions to the problems that plague our communities. From police reform to American cultural criticism, the theme of “universality” seems to be a consistent cheap way out. What is perhaps Allen’s most striking photo, the one featured on the cover of Time Magazine in April 2015. The words “America, 1968” were originally typed across the bottom right of the photo, and then the “1968” was scratched out and scribbled over with “2015” for dramatic effect. Make no mistake: yes, Baltimore is a part of a broader concept known as America, but Allen’s work is reflective of Baltimore and Baltimore exclusively.
The lens being applied to this work is that of a black Baltimorean living and breathing in Baltimore. It does not look like Chicago, nor does it feel like L.A. The male subjects of Allen’s shots wear New Balance sneakers, not Nike Foamposites, making a clear stylistic distinction between Baltimore and D.C. “People from the DMV are always quick to remind us that we aren’t a part of the DMV, so when it comes to my work, make sure you credit Baltimore. I want Baltimore to get the love,” he playfully tells me at his Gordon Parks Foundation dinner reception. Allen’s work does not portray Charleston or Detroit. The city streets are wide, much too wide to be mistaken for New York. But most importantly, the people featured in his work are thriving or struggling through conditions that have been specifically crafted by American society and cast upon them as people that call Baltimore home. To label the impact of Allen’s work as “universal” is to completely betray your eyes. This is Baltimore, West Baltimore to be exact.
Devin Allen did not pick up a camera until he was 25. Upon the publishing his first book, Allen joins the ancestry of esteemed black photographers like Gordon Parks, for which his highly coveted fellowship was named after, and who he cheerfully admits, is his biggest influence. In joining this ancestry, he also becomes intertwined in a long-struggling lineage of young black creatives that are doing their best inspire, and not lose their heads in the process.
Young black people in America have been navigating these same waters ever since the first of us were placed on ship aboard the Middle Passage, and that struggle continues. Allen’s musical contemporaries in the Midwest have developed their own sound. Artists like Smino, Noname and Chance the Rapper are singing and rapping over bright and colorful beats that often times evoke the spirit of the black church. They’re doing so while creating commentary on everything from love to loss to addiction. These are all themes that happen to be central to Allen’s work as well.
Artists native to D.C. like GoldLink and Wale are committed to digging up the city’s cultural staples like Go-Go as a medium for talking about the current state of their worlds. Collectives like T.D.E brandish modernized versions of old-school West Coasts beats — emphasizing a laid back cadence and raw storytelling. All of these versions of contemporary black sound in music function to create alternate realities; realities full of color and promise in the face of uncertainty and terror. The color is as evident in their sounds as it is in their album covers.
Then you have Devin Allen of Baltimore who shoots his photos almost exclusively in black and white. At one of the most trying times in the city’s history, he is telling the story of his city in black and white, not because he does not have hope, but because the reality of his city is exactly that. I reflect briefly on the nature of Baltimoreans I know — no nonsense types with not a lot of patience for straddling the fence — but also people that would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it. People who love passionately and give with their hearts. People with hopes, dreams and ambition.
Black and white looks good on Baltimore, because in Allen’s photos, Baltimore wears black and white as it’s truth. Baltimore’s citizens are looking for answers, for happiness, for reprieve. The main difference between the aesthetic Allen creates for Baltimore and the art springing up across other American cities — many of his subjects do not have the privilege of grey areas. You’re either here or there, real or fake, or here to help or here to harm in Baltimore. The color of their lives does not need to be over saturated because it’s baked into the day to day. Allen captures it perfectly in their smiles, abandoned needles on the street and abandoned buildings, their middle fingers raised high, expensive wigs and fresh haircuts, and the glitter in the eye of Baltimore’s children. He also actually happens to be slightly colorblind, which he reveals to me as a very matter-of-fact afterthought.
I asked Allen about his hopes for the future of Baltimore. His sole interest lie in continuing to “activate the spirit” of Baltimore’s youth and encouraging them to “manifest their pain in their art.” “Yes, it takes a village to raise a child,” he tells me, “but it takes a child to raise (elevate) a village.” Devin Allen and the people he holds nearest to his heart are busy working to create the future of Baltimore, and the world can’t wait to see how the children who raise this village will depict it.
Devin Allen's Beautiful Ghetto is out and available for copping now at Amazon and Haymarket Books.
Wallace Mack is a writer who is interested in exploring culture and the ways in which black millennials create, and choose to engage with it. Follow him on Twitter (@themackint0sh) and his published work is available at playinitcool.com.