During a time when our freedom of speech (or rather just our pure existence) is threatened, it’s important to shine a light on the people who capture the essence of being human. Often compared to the photographers of the 1960s in the battle for civil and human rights, 27-year-old photographer Devin Allen captures moments with an instant click, framing historically black marginalized people as the primary subjects, an act of resistance on its own. Like most people, I came across Devin Allen’s work via social media during the protests after the blood of Freddie Gray stained the streets of Baltimore in 2015. It was a halting moment, not only because of the murder of a black life again by the police, but because these evocative images in black and white of the resistance were going viral. The cover of Time magazine thrust him into the spotlight, but his light is more vibrant than his photos during the uprising in Baltimore.
In his role as a photographer, Allen seeks to capture the good, the bad and the ugly, whether it is at protests or through the lens of everyday Baltimore. He aims to provide a platform that empowers his viewers to be active participants, stating in an interview with CreativeMornings Baltimore that, “There’s a photographer in everybody.” The people really can connect through the usage of social media. Although he’ll never meet everyone who’s viewed his work, he hopes he’s touched him or her or them through the intentionality of his images. In regards to social media, Allen has stated, “If you can’t be there, tweet it, post it because if you don’t say anything no one will hear you.”
When describing his aesthetics, Allen has expressed that he’s inspired by photographer, writer and film director Gordon Parks. But for him, black and white photography sends a direct message to all that are viewing the photo. At times, he aims not to distract his audience with the vibrancy of color in the images, but rather to convey the raw emotion of what was going on in the time. He too is an active participant in resistance: “I wanted people to understand that I’m not just out there taking pictures trying to get the best shot, I’m actually protesting for something I believe in—I’m at every protest, on the front lines, not just capturing the image but also protesting making sure I’m building the energy of the protest, helping it reach its peak.” Allen has spoken on his purpose at framing certain people at the center of many of these narratives.
He admitted that he often focuses his lens on women, stating that, “Women are often overlooked for how powerful and naturally strong they are, I try to empower women because they are the foundation for a lot that we don’t give them credit for.” During the protest in Baltimore, he expressed that he had an issue with the language around young black being positioned, or rather reduced, to the four-letter word: “thug.” He chooses to challenge that narrative and seeks to increase empathy through his imagery, calling these young men “the forgotten ones.” Allen’s work exclaims that their voices should be heard, and he wants to create a dialogue for that.
In this past year, Allen has begun his own program teaching inner-city youth photography in Baltimore to grant access to those who want to photograph as well: “There are people in Baltimore doing amazing things but it gets overlooked because the media just wants to show negative after negative because you know if it bleeds, it leads.” Allen added, “My city is my inspiration; my city is my heartbeat.— I think everything is beautiful, even the negative stuff I try to portray it in my work, I call it a beautiful ghetto.” He talks about the neglect of the city, zoning and the lack of education many have received and challenges the current media landscape by being a vessel of visuals without bias.
At The LAMP, our previous photography programs such as Everyday Bronx and Photography as Activism focused on activism as an integral access point for all youth that we work with. In these programs, students have explored and documented their own communities with their cell phones, giving them an opportunity to peel back the layers of spaces and people they may or may not be familiar with, and to curate documents for the community at the center of the narrative. As Allen argues, “It’s so important to have cameras in these spaces because at the end of the day when other journalists come to take pictures they never get the story right, they’re not going to dig deep enough because they don’t love us, they don’t love our community like we do.”
Devin Allen recently won the Gordon Parks Foundation inaugural fellowship. This month, we celebrate the image activist who challenges and re-centers those who have been historically left out of the narrative.