Devin Allen: Focus Beyond the Fray

dall2In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, it’s become increasingly difficult to ascertain the truth. With media outlets vying for ratings, sensationalism often supersedes objectivity. The recent death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died while in police custody, has ignited the city of Baltimore. In the aftermath of Gray’s death, there were peaceful protests that were overshadowed by riots. Media coverage highlighted acts of violence while treating the peaceful gathering of over 10,000 protestors as a footnote. Sometimes you have to take the initiative and do your own investigative reporting. Devin Allen, a self-taught photographer, rose to the challenge and captured revelatory photos of a city at the crossroads.

Allen has lived in Baltimore his entire life. and only recently took up photography in 2013. Before he ventured into photography, the 26-year old dabbled with poetry. While he enjoyed writing poems, he had difficulty performing in front of an audience. In spite of this setback, Allen still had an urge to channel his creativity. He gravitated to photography and started snapping pictures. Initially, he focused on fashion and street photography. He also created t-shirts using his photographs. His hobby blossomed into a passion, and he’s been enamored of photography ever since. Allen sharpened his skills and drew inspiration from the works of photographer Gordon Parks and artist Andy Warhol. After the death of Freddie Gray, he found a new cause for his photography. He was captivated by the protests in Baltimore and wanted to enlighten the public about his city’s plight.

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As a native Baltimorean, Allen has insight into all aspects of the city. His love for the people of Baltimore is genuine. When he’s not taking photographs, he works an 8-hour overnight shift helping people affected by autism and intellectual disabilities. His humanitarianism fuels him as a person and a photographer. In an interview with Fusion.net, Allen extolled the spirit of his hometown. “It’s just real. Baltimore is a real city. It don’t cut no corners. You know, when you get around certain people or certain places it don’t feel real? You know, like everything seems perfect? Baltimore is not that. It’s a beautiful place, it’s like a rose in concrete to me. It’s a beautiful place, but most people don’t see it like I see it. I was born and raised here, so I see the negative, I see the positive. I see the good and the bad. I’ve been on both sides of the fence – both the good side and the bad side. So that’s what it is for me – it’s a beautiful place, and it’s real.”

The amateur photographer has witnessed racial profiling and experienced it firsthand. Some of his friends were attacked by police officers, he’s had drugs planted on him, and he’s been harassed for mistaken identity. Fortunately, he didn’t let these negative encounters skew his perspective. He’s also had positive interactions with police officers. An officer assisted him when he was involved in a car accident, he attended church with police officers, and even lived next door to an officer. Most police officers are helpful and law-abiding. Unfortunately, there are still some officers that abuse their power with impunity. Likewise, there are some civilians that indiscriminately hate all police officers. The disconnect between law enforcement officials and citizens is extremely problematic.
Allen uses his photography as a means for progress and healing. Although he feels the same frustration as rioters, for him violence is not the solution. “The peaceful protests have been put together by preachers and other activists here people who really know how to set up a protest,” Allen explained to Fusion.net. “They know how to lead protests. But now, a lot of people are taking it upon themselves to start their own protests. But they’re trying to start riots. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid. I’m trying to do my business to show people the difference. You have a voice, you don’t have to be violent.”

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As a black man myself, I too am outraged by racial discrimination and the epidemic of police brutality. Justifiably, if you’re victimized you want to react violently. However, uniting peacefully has had, and will continue to have, a far greater impact on social change.
When Allen started documenting the protests through images, his goal was to relay the true events taking place in Baltimore to the masses. He uploaded his photos to Instagram which launched his meteoric rise into the public eye. Several of his photographs have been featured on BBC and CNN. Time magazine used one of his pictures for the cover of its May 11, 2015 issue. This marked only the third time that an amateur photographer’s work was featured on the cover of Time.
Paul Moakley, director of photography for Time Magazine, came across Allen’s Instagram profile and was impressed with his photographs. “He was being really thoughtful and was capturing both sides of what was happening,” Moakley said in a press release. “He was showing people rioting and he was showing people who were protesting…He was even criticizing the media at certain points.” Allen has a balanced perspective, something that is rare in today’s media coverage. His dedication to photojournalism sets him apart from biased members of the media.

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Allen is already drawing comparisons to one of his influences, Gordon Parks. His work is galvanizing a new generation of activists. The Time photo cover, which depicts a black man fleeing a gang of police officers, harkens back to the televised images of policemen terrorizing black citizens during the Civil Rights Movement. Regarding equality, our country is still stagnant in some respects. Freddie Gray was wrongfully arrested and died because of several police officers’ negligence and indifference. Despite all the suffering that Civil Rights activists endured for the sake of peace, America has yet to fully embody its creed.
When I was looking through Allen’s Instagram profile, I could immediately see why Time chose to use his photos. Nicknamed “Baltimore’s Peter Parker” by his friends, Allen is extremely gifted at his craft. In an act of heroism, he placed himself in the midst of the action to gain the best possible vantage points. Many of the photos include the hashtags #ripfreddiegray, #Baltimore, and #blacklivesmatter, emphasizing Allen’s ties to the community and vision for justice.

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He’s especially adept at capturing the essence of people. One photo shows citizens speaking with an officer. According to Allen’s description, this image shows “What media don’t want you to see…a peaceful conversation being held on the front lines.” I also came across a heartwarming photo of a smiling Baltimore police officer carrying a child. The photo’s description, “Save our youth & inspire them,” is inspirational and hopeful. There should be mutual respect between officers and civilians; every life is valuable and compassion can quell violence. An incredibly evocative image shows a man draped in the American flag memorializing the victims of police brutality. The names of victims such as Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Tanesha Anderson, and Aiyana Jones were written on the white stripes of the flag. Another uplifting picture showed an interracial couple with their child flashing the “peace sign,” symbolizing the beauty of unity within our nation.

Allen’s photos provide a panoramic scope. Frequently, we react to the spectacle and overlook the human aspect. Equality for all people is the ultimate goal of protestors and activists. This isn’t a war on police, it’s a movement for justice. Every life is precious and we must unite as a nation. Devin Allen is a remarkable photographer with an inimitable character. By shedding light on the true conditions of Baltimore, he’s taken a tremendous step forward for racial equality. Feel free to check out his photographs at https://instagram.com/bydvnlln. I hope to see much more of his work in the future.

-Elijah Yarbrough