Baltimore Uprising Photographer Devin Allen Passes The Camera To Kids
By Christine Stoddard
The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody last April was by no means the first injustice suffered in Baltimore. Charm City wrestles with high rates of food deserts, lead poisoning, violent crime, incarceration, and other social ills riddled with racism. But Ferguson — undergirded by the tireless efforts of activists — awoke something in America. Only a few years ago, Gray’s death may not have ever made national headlines. Now the nation is watching. During the Baltimore Uprising, we watched. During the police trials, we continue to watch.
Since Gray’s death, we also have watched West Baltimore photographer Devin Allen — whose powerful protest photo made the cover of Time Magazine last May — catapult to photojournalism stardom. He showed us the protests through his eyes just by posting pictures to Instagram. Here was someone from a demographic historically underrepresented in mainstream media — black, low-income, and without a journalism or art school degree — telling the story.
Today Allen is among the Baltimore artists who are creating new outlets for community dialogue and social engagement. After the uprising, Allen could have left Baltimore for good; he had the connections and he had the media attention. While he did travel to Asia on assignment with Under Armour, he returned to Charm City. He had a mission in mind: to empower Baltimore youth with photography. He started by fundraising and leading workshops in Baltimore’s Penn North and Windsor Hills neighborhoods — and he’s not done yet.
Allen’s first collaborative photography show with Baltimore children, “Through Your Eyes,” produced by the Baltimore nonprofit, Arts Every Day, is now up at Motor House, an arts venue in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. I met up with Allen the night of the opening reception earlier this month to talk more about his vision. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Christine Stoddard: How did you decide to give cameras to local kids?
Devin Allen: After the uprising, I asked myself, “What can I do to make change?” I didn’t want to wait until I was like this big-time photographer. While I still have time on my hands, I want to touch these kids. Not a lot of us make it out of the city of Baltimore, definitely not doing photography. I’m like one in a million. So I started a GoFundMe in June because I wanted to inspire the youth. I didn’t know nothing about teaching photography. I don’t even know everything about photography. I’m constantly learning every day. But giving kids cameras and teaching them photography was all I wanted to do.
Stoddard: Why teaching?
Allen: A lot of people don’t know that I was a substitute teacher for a short period of time. I couldn’t get any other job because back then, around 2008, I had braids and I didn’t look professional. I needed a job but I didn’t want to work every day because I still wanted to have time for myself. When it came to subbing, I didn’t have to do an interview because my cousin had done the job, too. I just went online, filled everything out, and got my card. Then I was a substitute teacher at Baltimore County schools for a little while. But I was the substitute teacher who just sat down. I was that fun substitute teacher that was like, “Do whatever you want. Just don’t be loud.”
You know, even one of my first jobs when I was younger was teaching karate. I did a lot of karate in my younger years. That’s how I learned meditating. But getting caught up in the streets, I lost all that. I got rid of my imagination and being able to do art. I can draw and paint. But those are things that when you’re in the street, they don’t matter. They don’t glorify those things in our schools, even when I was coming up.
Stoddard: How did your vision of teaching Baltimore kids photography become a reality?
Allen: So a lot of those things were just planted in my mind. First, I started off by being a kind of motivational speaker, just speaking to kids, at places like the [Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore]. I know for sure I’ve spoken to like 2,000 kids, from ages kindergarten to twelfth grade. Even some college students came.
After I started the GoFundMe, I got the attention of Russell Simmons and other leaders and businesses, who donated money and photography supplies. I started mentoring kids in the Penn-North neighborhood [where last spring’s protests took place]. Then Reginald F. Lewis put me in touch with Windsor Hill Middle School. Arts Every Day reached out to me and took a big chunk out of what I would’ve had to spend on the project. When they found out I was working with the school that they was working with, they were very adamant to help. They helped out a lot. This wouldn’t have been possible without Arts Every Day, Russell Simmons, and everyone else who contributed and keeps contributing.
People look at it like it’s just me, but I pulled all of my resources together, including the media attention that I had after the uprising. This show is the first of many shows. These kids are going to high school soon, but this program is about building relationships so it can’t be that I work with one group of kids and just move onto the next group of kids. I’m trying to work with as many kids as I can possible, but inspiring them for the long-run. This project is going to grow. It’s going to be magnificent.
Stoddard: How do you think learning photography can benefit Baltimore children?
Allen: At the end of the day, these kids, like me, are a product of their environment. Growing up here, we see a lot of negativity. When you turn on the news and you look at our city, there’s never anything positive. We’re part of this struggle, this system, this oppression. We turn to the streets. We become what we see every day.
A lot of these kids are so mature. They’re raising little brothers and little sisters. Some of their parents might not be around that much or in their life. They’re stressed out. But art gives kids an outlet to release their stress. That’s what it is for me. When I’m stressed out, I take my camera and go. Some kids pick up a gun. But they can take that struggle off the street and instead let it inspire them and learn how to funnel that energy, not just with a camera, but with a paintbrush or their words — these kids are unstoppable. And it’s sad because lots of people don’t believe in them. But I believe. That’s why I’m taking the jump. Art saves lives. Literally.
Images courtesy the author