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Photographer and Baltimore native Devin Allen has become one of the most prolific men behind a camera in the last five years. His work first became known on a national scale in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray. A photo of Allen’s, depicting a man running from police during the protests in Baltimore, was picked up as the cover image by TIME Magazine. Eerily reminiscent of the 1968 riots that erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the photo served as a startling reminder that the same violence and oppression surrounds Black people now as it did then.
Images of the Black Lives Matter protests around the country captured by the 32-year-old have probably showed up in your Instagram feed at one point or another. Allen’s work is distinct because of its rawness – depicting not only protests, but Black life so vividly it makes you feel like you’re in the shot in real time. Allen also handles his subjects with care, portraying their humanity with intimacy.
For the creative, it’s deeper than photographs. He and Freddie Gray had mutual friends, and Allen himself has been a victim of police harassment since a youth. He’s lost countless friends to gun violence, and seeks to be a change agent so that his 10-year-old daughter might know a better America.
REVOLT spoke to the talent about how he captures such inspiring images at protests, surviving the rough and tumble streets of Baltimore’s west side, and what legacy he hopes to leave behind with his work. Check out the great conversation below.
How did your upbringing influence your passion for photography?
My upbringing is everything. In a lot of my interviews, I say how I didn’t know any photographers growing up. But then, when I go back and think about it, my grandma has been taking pictures forever. She had all these disposable cameras where she always just documented pictures of moments. I always thought Gordon Parks was the first person that inspired me. He might be the first photographer that I looked at and studied. Now in COVID[-19], I am sitting down and I am just realizing that maybe my grandmother was the first photographer that I had ever known.
Growing up in Baltimore is really tough. I lost my first friend at 16 or 17 years old to gun violence.
I’ve buried 30 plus friends. I lost both my best friends after I got my first camera. I am so used to violence and people just being murdered around me. I have also been shot at. I have seen people take their last breath.
The first time your photography became known on a national scale was during the Freddie Gray protests. Five years later, we are dealing with the outrage of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. Why do you think the global reaction to Floyd’s death is so much more intense than other police brutality incidents?
I struggle with it. It’s something that I am still trying to understand and process. I see everybody so outraged now. But you had Mike Brown, then you have Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling. You got Philando Castile, you got Korryn Gaines, you got all these people that I remember protesting for when nobody was listening to us.
And I remember. It is so vivid to me. I struggle with it because now white people want to protest with us. I have never seen so many white people at protests. The only asset that I really have is the fact that the Trump administration and the people that support him, it’s affecting white people. We have a common enemy now… I’ve been here and the work, it’s beyond photography. It’s my life. I live and breathe this stuff as a Black man. People [ask], “What about Black on Black violence?” but they don’t understand that its all a product of being under the thumb of the government.
Do you feel that having white allies is necessary for us to move the needle and create change?
Here’s the thing, we didn’t create racism. Black people can’t be racist. White people created this thing. They have to dismantle it. We need white allies, but I think that the problem is when external voices get too loud. And that’s what I don’t think people understand. External voices get so loud that they drown out internal voices. The movement is for Black people. We need to have our own platform. White people sometimes take over with their voice and how they feel, and it overpowers what we think and what we feel. And that’s what happens with media and so many other places that we get drowned out.
Through your photography, you make viewers feel as if they’re right in the middle of the action. When you’re shooting at these protests and rallies, what is your strategy for getting such raw and vivid images?
I think everybody is here for a purpose. I’m a conduit. I’m a person that speaks for my ancestors. God put me on earth and my blessing is not so much the photography, but the fact that I am able to digest my community and regurgitate it to the world. A lot of people take pictures. There’s pictures all over and some are better than mine, but I figured the reason I am in Time Magazine and I am published is because I understand that I sacrifice who I am as a person. I don’t go against my moral compass, but I’m able to speak for my community very, very well. My process is simply me being an insider, but removing myself by taking pictures. When I get behind a lens, I go into another zone. I am at a protest, but I have to take a step back.
As an artist, you want people to feel what you feel. I am not taking pictures because it is pretty, because it’s cute, because it’s clear. You need to feel what I feel because this is my life as a Black man raising a Black daughter, who was raised by a Black mother and stepfather.
Being at these protests is risky because of COVID-19, and also because of the police violence and the chaos that goes down. Have you ever been at risk of getting arrested, hurt or put in danger while taking photos?
I’ve been chased down. I’ve been pepper-sprayed. I’ve been harassed by police officers just because they know who I am. One time, I had police officers ask for my pictures. The police officers were like, “You are Devin Allen. Let’s get a picture.” I’ve had police officers ask for prints of my work. I have been pulled over and police officers made me park my car, got my license suspended and forced me to walk home. I have also been suicidal.
I’m going to tell you this, and you can quote me on this. In a year or two, when the media change their attention to somewhere else, [you will see] how many Black photographers, Black women, Black men, Black LGBT community members who were documenting what’s going on in the country now during COVID[-19] and with all the police brutality…you might see a lot of suicides come up. As you shoot these things, you don’t digest it. Once you come out of it, you have to deal with it. You have to live with it. It’s a lot of pain to swallow.
So, how do you take care of your mental health in the midst of all the heaviness you’re experiencing every day at these protests?
I think the only reason I am able to deal with a lot of things is because I have a daughter. And I fight so hard because I want to be the change that I want to see. And I want to leave this world better than how I came into it and I just want the world to be better before my daughter is my age. I used to shoot every protest. I take breaks now. I shoot three or four protests, and I disappear. I’ll say, “F**k social media. F**k everything. I don’t care about what nobody wants from me.” I just live in the moment and be with my family — just watching Netflix, throwing water balloons, playing in the grass, laying in the grass, drinking liquor, and having a cookout at the house. Just being detached from the rest of the world, and spending time with my family. I cannot do the work that I do if I don’t take care of myself first.
Your book A Beautiful Ghetto is a gorgeous, really well-made book featuring your photography, some of which was featured in Time Magazine. Can we expect a second book soon?
Yes, I’ve been blessed. I don’t know what it is. Even when I did my first book, I wasn’t even thinking about a book. But Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor who wrote Black Lives Matter: The Black Liberation was like, “You need to do a book,” and then put me in touch with Haymarket Books. I signed with Writers House as my literary agency. I am super excited about my next book, and I can’t say too much about it because I don’t want to jinx it. It is going to be in the same vein as A Beautiful Ghetto, but this book is going to be way more powerful because of the people that I got in it. And what I do is I use my platform to educate people on what other Black people are doing in my community. This book is going to show you what it is to be Black from every spectrum — in the sense of being a Black straight woman, or being a Black gay woman, or being a straight Black man, or being a gay Black man, or being Black and trans, or being Black and queer. I am also re-releasing A Beautiful Ghetto in paperback next year and [using] my second Time Magazine cover for it.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be recognized for my work. But, I am human and when people see my work, I don’t want to be a journalist or a documentary photographer. I would tell people that I am a dialogue creator. I want to spark conversation. When you are at a dinner table and you look at my work, you have those hard conversations with your family and your peers because you feel something from the work. You are conflicted by the work. I don’t want to document the time. I want you to have a conversation about it. I have been super heavy into James Baldwin. He talks about how, as artists, the work is not really yours. It’s the people’s work. It is the world’s work.
It is as simple as when you are buying a house. You are paying on this house, but this house is going to outlive you. You raise those kids and when these kids go out into the world, they do what they want to do. The work is the same way. Understand the work is mine while I am here, but after that, it goes off and does its own thing. I want to make sure my work is here for 100 years. I need to make sure that work is here and stands for what I believe in.