PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. — Photography saved Devin Allen's life.
The West Baltimore native is a 29-year-old man not living the typical millennial life described in mainstream media. The perceived image is of a young person who feels an entitlement to success without the hard work.
Allen's hard work chronicled a movement known as the “Baltimore Uprising,” and his continued effort puts him in harm's way more often than not.
The May 11, 2015 cover of Time magazine featured Allen's iconic photo taken during heated protests in his home city of Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.
That picture helped Allen win a Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship and set him on a path of travelling the world with his art.
He remains a homegrown social justice activist who fights against police brutality, specifically the case of Gray who died in police custody during an arrest. After the six officers involved were all acquitted, Baltimore erupted into days of protests.
“I want to show people we are human,” says Allen. “The first thing they call us is 'thugs.' People don’t understand what happened.”
A Beautiful Ghetto, Allen’s free exhibit at the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, features poignant and everyday images of his community, from children on swings to men at the barbershop. It also shows urban blight and the faces of protesters young and old.
"People get to see the resilience; how we love and take care of one another. We have to fight every day just to survive," says Allen.
Allen’s 2015 photograph of a black man with a bandana covering his face, running from an army of roughly 30 police officers in full riot gear and plastic face protectors, guns drawn, is shocking in its graphic nature and frightening in its David versus Goliath context.
The observer loses a breath at what looks like an imminent attack. With similar images of police officers accused of shooting unarmed African-American men across the U.S., it looks like another example of police brutality in real time.
"I don’t think people understand there are certain places in Baltimore where people are living like they are in third-world countries," Allen says.
What looks like a war zone is Baltimore on April. 25, 2015.
Allen shot the photographs and then used Wi-Fi to upload them live. The images went viral.
“That day of the pictures, we marched,” says Allen. “I didn’t think nothing of it. I was using Wi-Fi just uploading my shots because I wanted people to know what really was going on when it happened. And that particular one I put 'we’re sick and tired' (in the caption) and it went viral.”
Time magazine saw the photo, contacted Allen and his candid image ended up on the cover of the weekly magazine.
The self-taught photographer first picked up a camera four years ago.
“I’m new to the photography world. I started in 2013, that’s when I got my first camera because I write poetry and I liked to perform it,” he says. “I didn’t know much about it — it was never in my life plan. I liked the energy that transfers between me and my subject.”
One weekend turned this hobby into a lifesaver.
“My two best friends I grew up with, Derek Lee aka Dayday and Chris Samuels aka Casper, both were murdered on the same weekend. The only reason I wasn’t shot is I was taking pictures,” says Allen.
He recounts the story to illuminate the gravity of the living situation in places like Baltimore and how his community is perceived, especially men who look like him.
Even taking pictures in Baltimore was suspect.
“It’s rare that you see a guy walking around with a camera; when I first started, people would say 'are you the police?'"
“Now after Freddie Gray, there’s been way more media; ever since Freddie died it has been a lot of conversations about Baltimore, but all the conversations aren’t positive," he says. "We might surpass New York in the numbers of murders.”
“My work has put me in a position where it is helping me change the narrative. Not just in Baltimore but other places like Chicago. I get Instagram and people say they are inspired by my work,” he says.
But he worries about outsiders who come in and spin the tale of the city and even want to take control of it. "They see the nice land and say let’s gentrify — and then want to push us out," says Allen, who teaches art to autistic students in Baltimore and still lives there with his family.
"I never got the opportunity to leave Baltimore. It can get annoying sometimes — when you live here. Because we are trying to make the city better."
Being chosen for the Gordon Parks fellowship is full circle for the artist who has looked up to the legendary photographer.
"It's like a dream. When I started, Gordon Parks was the only photographer I knew about. It feels like the universe reached out and touched me."
"I was just in Italy — it was amazing. To give a lecture it feels good. I can tell the story of Baltimore and go around the world and be heard. So many times people from Baltimore don’t get to be heard.
"When you grow up in Baltimore, it felt like a movie; you read about the civil rights movement, you have all these activists," he says. "We don’t know we’re activists; we are just fighting for what we believe in."
Follow Karen Roberts on Twitter: @krhudsonvalley