Devin Allen is a self-taught photographer and Baltimore native. His images from the protests following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody have received thousands of likes and shares on social media. As the situation continued to unfold in his hometown, Fusion caught up with Allen to learn more about his work and the gaps in the narratives being reported on the news versus those being experienced on the ground.
Fusion: So how old are you and how long have you been doing photography?
Devin Allen: Well, I'm 26, and I started photography [about] 3 years ago, in 2013.
Fusion: What got you started?
Devin Allen: Basically, hanging in the city, we don't have a lot to do…one of my friends actually got me into doing poetry, so I had my own poetry night. But I suck. I can write poetry but I cannot perform. So I had to find a way to give people that poetry feel, but visually, so I started making T-shirts. From there I got into photography. I would take pictures and put them on T-shirts and eventually, I fell in love with it and that became my major outlet since then.
Fusion: How long have you been in Baltimore?
Devin Allen: All my life.
Fusion: Your whole life, so you're local?
Devin Allen: Yes.
Fusion: What stands out to you about Baltimore when you are taking pictures? What makes Baltimore so interesting to you?
Devin Allen: 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.
Fusion: When you say you've been on the bad side, what do you mean? What is the bad Baltimore that you know and what is the good Baltimore that you know?
Devin Allen: Well, growing up here is very stressful. You can get caught up in a lot of things if you don't have a strong environment [around you]. Growing up, I got caught up in a lot of foolishness because of friends, where I hung at, and umm…I was raised by my mother and her family, I was raised good, but I just had affection for the streets. I had a lot of friends in the hood who'd run the streets all day, I hung with a lot of people. I lost a lot of friends. I buried both my best friends back in 2013. Both of them were murdered. I lost both my best friends, so they're like my inspiration. I was just doing whatever, you know, to get the day passed. I tried the school thing, didn't work. Got a job, but you know it's hard to stay the narrow with so much stress and negativity. Drugs everywhere, crack-infested, heroin-infested. It's very difficult, but [an] easy city to get caught up in. As far as being on the bad side, I hung with drug dealers and I ran the streets with some bad people, you know?
Photography actually got me away from that because both my best friends were both murdered; one was murdered on a Friday, and my other best friend was murdered on a Saturday. The only reason I was not with them was because I had photo shoots both days. And that kind of bridged the gap between the streets and my art, and I chose my art over the streets.
Fusion: So what about the beautiful part of Baltimore? What has photography shown you or made you understand about the city you grew up in that you didn't know before?
Devin Allen: I didn't know there were so many talented people here. Like I didn't know that. I only hung in the west side of Baltimore, but through photography I met so many talented people. I was used to being in the hood, where a lot of people are so standoffish, if you're not from the hood we won't deal with you, if you're not from this part of town, [but] photography has introduced me to a lot of people I would never have met. I've met some strong young leaders, strong black men, poets, painters, sculptors, all types of people. People that [aren't] native here but you'd think they were really from here.
And you know, I'd never really paid attention to the way the downtown is shaped, the shape of the buildings, and just the little things that I really took for granted. I was just thinking like, when I went to New York, and then I would come back home, I would walk past trees and flowers without paying them any mind, but now that I do photography, I sit, I think, I reflect. The same thing with the city. The biggest thing, the beauty is just the people in general here. The people are like nowhere else. It can be cold, but there's a lot of warmer people. There are a lot of strong people here, a lot of talented people but we don't look because there's a lot of negativity, you know?
Fusion: What would you say about your interactions with the police growing up in Baltimore?
Devin Allen: (Exhales.) Well, I have been subjected to racial profiling. You know, I have had friends beaten by police. I have had police plant drugs on me because they've been mad that they didn't find any. In one instance, I was driving my mother's car. She has a 2007 Camry. This was about 2008, 2009. I was driving the car, minding my business, when the police pulled me over and said the car was reported stolen. And I'm saying how? My name is Devin Allen, my mother's name is Gail Allen. So I showed my driver's license, which matched the information on the registration. They didn't find nothing in the car on the first search, and on the second search they found some weed. So they locked us up, they put us in the paddywagon, put us in the flexicuffs, rode around Baltimore City for about three or four hours before they finally made it downtown so I could call my mother to get me out of jail.
Another instance, I was going home from school - I went to community college for physical therapy. I was walking home from school - at the time I had dreads - and they had a description. They were looking for a dark-skinned guy with dreads (I'm brown-skinned) but they still went through my bookbag. I had the school name on my bookbag, but still he dumped out all my homework, kicked my books and everything into the middle of street, my homework was just blowing down the street.
The sad part about that one was he was a black officer that did that, you know? It took the Caucasian guy to say "hey, that's not who we're looking for." And the white guy sat there and helped me pick my papers up. So you know, I've had my encounters with the police, but you know I had some good ones too.
I was in a predicament, I was in a car accident, and the police looked out for me. They not all bad. I had some bad experiences but I know a lot of good cops. I had some friends who were police, police that go to my church, I used to live next door to a police [officer], so it's some good ones out here. I had my share, both good and evil, about 70% - 40%. It's the good and the bad.
Fusion: When you saw people take to the streets after the death of Freddie Gray, what did you think and how did you feel when you were grabbing your camera to go out there?
Devin Allen: Well, even before the Freddie Gray [incident] we've been rallying. It's a small city, but we did something for Eric Garner, we did Palestine-Israel, we marched for that, we did Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin. I been taking pictures for those things because that could easily be me. It could have been any of my friends. The Freddie Gray situation, I mean, I was in disbelief. I know people - I mean my coworker is friends with some of his friends. I have mutual friends that know him. Because Baltimore City is a small city. Everybody knows everybody, for the most part. So when it happened, we knew it could have been us.
So when they started protesting, my first instinct was like "I gotta document this" — but I knew it was going to be the good with the bad. I knew that was gonna happen - we saw what happened in Ferguson and in other places. I knew something was going to happen. I have a nice-sized following, I'm not famous, but I know my work is good. I knew if I could get the right shot, to show some positivity and show what's really going on. I mean, The Baltimore Sun here? I knew they wasn't going to cover it right. So what I tried to do was be ahead of The Baltimore Sun - I've got a camera with wifi.
So the picture I have of the guy holding his son? That is from Thursday. Very peaceful. You know, we walked the entire downtown, no fights no nothing. Not a lot of police, no issues. Then Saturday we protested and it was another peaceful one. And it went sour real real fast. It was just crazy. At that point, I had to get the right shot so I could tell the truth, because I knew if [violence] broke out, Baltimore would get all the attention we'd been seeking all week and not in a positive way.
So with what I have, I'm not going to lie. I'm going to give y'all the truth. I said I was going to dedicate my feed to Freddie Gray. But I never thought it would reach this far.
Fusion: You said it went sour - what happened, do you think, in that Saturday protest that made it different from Friday's protest?
Devin Allen: The difference is it was a baseball game. It was a lot of people - it had to be at least 2,000 people on the streets. So we walked the streets and went to City Hall - no police on the streets. We were out there shutting down these major streets by ourselves - the protestors putting down their cones and they're blocking the street to cars. We did that. We walked the entirety of downtown Baltimore and then we went to City Hall and they said they wanted to go to where the police were. And they were protecting Camden Yards. Baseball. The baseball game. That's all the police were worried about. They wasn't worried about nothing else going on downtown. If we really was rioting we could have torn downtown out - almost the entire force was at Camden Yards while we were [marching] around. There were some more police at City Hall, but they were outnumbered. By hundreds. But we didn't do anything, we didn't tear down downtown.
When we got to Camden Yards and we addressed the police…it was the [protestors] and the family and it was peaceful. One of the close friends of Freddie Gray, one of the close friends and his brother, they actually sat and talked to the police, telling them how they felt with the blowhorns. Telling them. You know they had these conversations, but that's not what they are showing in the media. But at that point the protestors kind of broke up. Some stayed on the left side of Camden Yards and some on the right. Some whipped around and came to the front of Camden Yards. When I walked around, there were people fucking with the police on that side too. There was a little bit of throwing, soda bottles and stuff like that. But it was a few, it wasn't a lot. [The police] didn't have their gear or anything on because it wasn't to that magnitude yet.
When we went, they wouldn't let the baseball game out - so everyone that went [to the game] stayed in the stadium. The police wouldn't let no one leave, so, the protestors kept moving. Some made it all the way to the bars, right outside the stadium. So [the fans] can't leave and they're drunk and they're in the bars. So the protestors blocked that street, and then they laid on the ground and said "I can't breathe" and did the choking of the neck, some of them put their hoodies on.
And then the racial slurs started.
The people at the bar, the Orioles fans, were calling us monkeys, niggers - they even got to the other protestors, they were calling them nigger-lovers, monkey-lovers, they were giggling. They thought it was funny. But the thing is, I'm 26 years old, I know how to keep my composure. But we had other young guys who were about 15, 14, 16 who could not control their attitude. That's when it went sour. And then the sixteen, seventeen-year-olds started making their way towards the bar. Before the fighting even broke out they were just fussing back and forth. And, you know, the Orioles fans, the white Orioles fans started putting their hands up, you know, "What, what, what are you coming for, nigger?" stuff like that. I have a picture in my feed of a young lady who was yelling, "Nigger, you're not going to do nothing, get the fuck out of here." I don't know if the guy with her was her boyfriend, but he snatches her by her hoodie, tries to get her to shut up.
But it was already too late. These guys were running up and in between them - [the media] didn't show this, but some Orioles fans charged and some young ones charged, young black guys, and they just started fighting. A lot of people started running back into the bars. At that point, that was when people started throwing food, started busting windows - but at the same time, the regular protests were still going on the other side. This was still like a small faction of people. [The fighting] was probably about 50-100 people while the [protests] were 1,800 people on the other side of the [stadium]. But [the fighting] slowly makes its way around the streets until it gets where the police cars are and people start destroying the police cars.
But if you look at the videos they are posting, all those guys are teenagers - the rest of the protestors haven't even come around [to that part of the street] yet. So I followed them around - I took a breath and the other protestors, the older black folks, hadn't gotten there yet. So the young ones are fighting and we're out there trying to break it up. It took an older and a younger black man to break up the fight - these are the things these photographers for The Baltimore Sun are not catching, and if they are catching it, they aren't showing it.
I don't know why. And black people weren't the only ones getting hurt.
I have a picture of a white guy and he got pepper sprayed straight in his face because he was standing with us on the front. And a black guy poured milk in his eyes. It wasn't just a race thing. It was just really the protestors and the cops, you know? It was the young people who broke away from the original protests, they went on to bust windows and do everything else. They went their own way. The protestors remained peaceful even after that part. Once the police charged, the young guys took off. The real protestors are the ones who were ready for that, and they were prepared to handle things face to face with the police, without touching the police.
Yes, [the protestors] were talking trash, of course, and putting pictures of Freddie Gray in [the officers'] faces but at that point there was no more violence. The young guys, they went on to bust windows then went on their merry way.
You know, a photographer got beat. I can't remember his name, he works for The Sun, he the got beat. I think they locked him up. Someone from CNN, the police beat him. [Editor's Note: Two reporters have confirmed being detained.] You know, the police beat photographers. It was a crazy day.
The racial chants affected the younger generation and they just couldn't handle it. That's what kind of set it off.
Fusion: So what is the mood and atmosphere like today in Baltimore?
Devin Allen: Tensions are still high. There are a lot of things going around that are not true. Like today was [Freddie Gray's] funeral. And with me being a native of Baltimore and a photographer, a lot of people asked if I was going to take pictures. I'm like "No - a funeral is sacred." His family has been fighting, but they need time to grieve, to put him to rest. I feel like me trying to take pictures is kind of [intrusive.] So I stayed away from the funeral. But there's a meeting tomorrow to find out how the case with the police is going. But it's a lot of people trying to start their own rallies. The peaceful protests have been put together by preachers from Baltimore and other activists here, people who really know how to set up a protest. They know how to lead these 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. You know, I'm not violent. I'm reaching more people than you are rioting. I'm bringing attention to what is going on. There are people in my city trying to fight the police or making posts on Instagram like "we're going to go fight the police, we're going to go riot" and all this other stuff.
I totally don't agree or stand for it. Things are very on edge, even at the protests. I mean, the family was about to fight the other protestors because these protestors were being very ignorant and disrespectful. They were talking to the police and we're like, "We are here to support this family. How you gonna disrespect them? How are you still throwing stuff after they ask you to be quiet?" So there's a couple of bad seeds in there. But Freddie Gray's family has been real positive and very very peaceful. And they are the ones hurting.
It's these other ones that are just…I can't even explain it. It's sad.
Fusion: What do you think it's going to take to change the culture of police violence in Baltimore? What will it take to make change?
Devin Allen: When my mother was growing up, her generation, they grew up knowing the police in her neighborhood. They were walking the streets, you know? The police used to be a part of the community. You could say hello to the police. The police were stationed in certain parts of the city, and they were present, they were part of the community. And that connection is what has been missing. How can you expect a police officer to respect the citizens [if they] don't love the city?
I think we need more officers to actually - we need to make them live here. You know, they always say you don't do your dirt where you lay your head. You know, a lot of these police officers don't even live in Baltimore. I think a lot of police officers need to go through better training, like the FBI, they need to see a psych doctor, they need to see if they are mentally and emotionally equipped to handle the job. It's not just about the mental [health] - it's about the mental impact. Being a police officer will wear you down. I know it.
I mean, even me, being black, I look at other black people and be like "Oh, he ain't up to no good, let me go across the street." I do it. I racially profile. So I can only imagine how police do. I don't go down certain streets, I don't go to certain hoods, if I see certain types of people acting a certain way, I go the other way. There's nothing wrong with racially profiling if that's what you see.
I think they also need to get the funding up. I mean, they are paying these police next to nothing, you already know they're going to have an attitude if you aren't paying them enough to risk their life. How are you going to pay someone to risk their life on a daily basis but you aren't really paying them good? They need to pay these police officers better, they need to give them better benefits, and they need to just not have these police riding around anywhere. They need to assign certain people to certain neighborhoods and make them walk that beat. Walk the street, understand the neighborhood, understand what's going on in the neighborhood. Learn the people in the neighborhood and how it works.
And there is also a problem with us too on the reverse side. We've got so much hatred for police, that when we have a good one that can possibly help you, you giving them your ass to kiss. But it depends on the crime. If a young girl was raped, the first thing you'd call is the police. When your loved one gets killed, you want them to find the culprit. But as soon as they kill one of us, you hate them all. Can't hate them all, you know? Police need to be held accountable, and before they even get the job, I think they need to go through some type of psych evaluation. I work with people with autism, that's my daily job. And some of my clients, if you look at them, you talk to them, you would think they're perfectly fine. But mentally, there are certain things that don't register in their head. And you would never know that unless you actually sit down and talk to them.
And I think the police need better training, and they need proper training, give 'em more money, and maybe things will get better.
If a man not really making no money, he already mad as soon as he get to work because he ain't making no money. So there's a lot of aspects I think this city needs to change before anything gets better. And I think they need to force these police to build a connection with this city. You know, like, you come to work, you do your 9-5, and then you go home. These police, this is how [they] look at it. They live in Cumberland, MD or Montgomery County - they come here, do their job, they really don't care if they lock people up, and then they go home. Force them to live in the vicinity. That would make them be more cautious about what they do and how they handle things.
People [aren't] mad about getting locked up - that's the police's job. They're mad at how they treat people. In spite of what kind of charges he had or what kind of person he might be, every body has the right to go to court. Let the judge or the jury decide. A lot of police now, they fear black men because of stereotypes and what they do see in media.
That hasn't changed - and it will be a long time before anything gets any better, sad to say.