Protest Photographer Teaches Art to Baltimore’s Next Generation
Last spring, after Freddie Gray died while he was restrained in police custody in Baltimore, protests erupted in the long-frustrated city that has grappled with high rates of poverty, unemployment, incarceration, lead poisoning, and other challenges.
Baltimore photographer Devin Allen was there to document the protest signs, the raised fists, and the broken glass—and his images went viral, earning thousands of likes for individual Instagram photos. One image even ended up on the cover of Time. He now boasts more than 97,000 Instagram followers.
“While I was out during the uprising, I was out for three weeks straight. I’ve been tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, hit with shields, and capturing these images,” Allen told TakePart. “What I noticed was that I saw so many kids out on the front lines with me, riding their bikes in between police officers.”
That got him thinking. What if these kids had cameras? What photos would they take?
Allen is convinced his most important work lies ahead of him: teaching other young Baltimoreans to arm themselves with cameras, not guns. In a city that saw 344 homicides in 2015—a record high—Allen hopes youths will use the arts to express themselves, have fun, and document their world instead of joining gangs.
“One of my friends was killed while I was out on a photo shoot,” he said, referring to a single weekend in 2013 when two of his friends were shot and killed, each on a different day. “Photography literally saved my life.”
That’s why, on the evening of March 9, a collaborative photo exhibit called Through Our Eyes highlighted the work of seven Windsor Hills Middle School students he has been working with. The project came out of the planning and fund-raising he began over the summer. In June, Allen raised more than $3,000 through GoFundMe, attracting big-name donors such as Russell Simmons to write checks for thousands more. With that money, Allen bought cameras and began mentoring young photographers at a community center in Baltimore’s Penn North neighborhood, where last April’s riots occurred. In January, he began his nearly three-month-long workshop at Windsor Hills.
None of this would have happened if Allen hadn’t taken the risk of documenting the Baltimore uprising last year. His images of Black Lives Matters activists reinforced the idea that the city’s struggle with police brutality is not just a regional concern but a national one.
Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, who launched the Mapping Police Violence project with Johnetta Elzie in 2014, praises Allen’s work as an artist and teacher. McKesson is now running for mayor of Baltimore.
“Devin is a gifted photographer whose work so vividly captures the city—all of its joy and all of its pain,” Mckesson told TakePart.
According to Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit for arts advancement, black and Latino students have less than half the access to arts education that their white peers do, and that access has steadily declined for more than 30 years.
“It starts with mapping all the resources and funding streams and being intentional about how they come together,” Mckesson said. “That’s what creates access for every child.”
Funding and partnerships matter because art matters.
“Art is a reflection of license, and it also pushes us to think about issues and different possibilities. The art that has come from the uprising has done both,” Mckesson said. “With regard to children, art is a way to tell stories about the world we live in—how they can fight for the world they want to live in. We have artists doing that in Baltimore and across the country.”
Windsor Hills hadn’t had a full-time art teacher on staff in three years, and the school’s media specialist, Cindy Marcoline, strives to integrate the arts as much as possible.
“Devin is amazing,” Marcoline said. “Ever since the early stage of his celebrity, he’s been more about giving back to the community than anything.”
Allen was thrilled to come to Windsor Hills, a high-poverty school served by Arts Every Day, a nonprofit that links Baltimore public school students with creative programming and resources.
“The crazy thing about it is that [the kids are] better than me, because it took them two or three months to learn what they learned and get the shots that they got,” Allen said. “It took me two years to get that good.”
One of those talented young students is Kayla Booker, 14.
“It’s great that he’s taking the time to think about the youth,” Booker said. “I really like art, but I can’t draw anything. I learned that photography is art. This changed me. I didn’t expect it to come this far.”
Of the three photos she had printed, Booker’s favorite is a portrait of her dog playing in the snow. The black dog’s joyful face fills the frame and stands in sharp contrast to the out-of-focus snow in the background. In the future, Booker hopes to travel the world and document her adventures with a camera in hand.
Other students’ photos featured landscapes, streetscapes, family portraits, and light-painting effects created with a long exposure.
Though the Windsor Hills workshop has ended, Allen promises his work as an educator has not.
“If I pass a kid on the street who goes, ‘I want to learn photography,’ I want to give them a camera,” he said.
He plans to continue collecting cameras and to bring the workshop to other sites wherever he can, as funding allows.
“Hopefully, this is just the beginning,” he said. “These kids are amazing.”