He believes photography can save children’s lives. After all, it saved his.

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When Devin Allen comes to talk to students at inner-city schools, few kids think one of Baltimore’s hottest photographers hails from their neighborhood. “They’re like, ‘There’s no way this guy did all this, and he’s from West Baltimore,'” Allen says. “As soon as I open my mouth, they’re like, ‘Yeah, you from here.’ ”

It’s not just Baltimore’s youth who are surprised by Allen’s overnight success. The self-taught photographer’s career trajectory changed dramatically in 2015, when a photo he took during the Baltimore uprising – a series of protests in response to the arrest and death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, then that he was in police custody – went viral. A few days later, a photo of a young black man running down the street with police in riot gear hot on his heels made the cover of Time magazine, making Allen the third amateur photographer to have his work featured on the cover of the publication.

Opportunities followed for Allen, then in his mid-twenties. In 2017, he became the first Gordon Parks Foundation Fellow, which recognized Allen’s dedication to social justice through art, placing him close to the groundbreaking black photographer whose photojournalism on civil rights issues , poverty and the African-American experience has inspired generations. of artists. Allen’s first book, “A Beautiful Ghetto,” was released the same year. In 2020, he made the cover of Time again, this time with a photo of a Black Trans Lives Matter protest. Her second book, “No Justice, No Peace: From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter,” comes out in October.

“There’s documentary photography, but there’s also documentary photography that has this trust and these humanitarian aspects,” Peter Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, told me. “I’ve seen so many photos of protests, rallies and marches, especially in the wake of George Floyd. What struck me in Devin’s work was the humanity in the subjects’ faces.

“It reminds me so much of Parks’ work when he was photographing the Nation of Islam, and the work of Malcolm X, and his work with the March on Washington around civil rights. I saw so many parallels with the images he had. He captured that same essence of humanity in the subject,” Kunhardt says.

The kids Allen talks to don’t care about scholarships, book releases, or magazine covers. It’s when Allen tells them he regularly photographs basketball star Stephen Curry for Baltimore-based sports equipment company Under Armor that they perk up. This is Allen’s entry to let them know that his life didn’t start out so differently from theirs.

Allen grew up in the West Forest Park neighborhood, the son of a strong matriarch. “I was spoiled,” he says. “I didn’t have all the designer things I wanted, but all the snacks in the world and the electricity always on.” Even so, Allen started dealing drugs in high school. It only lasted six years, but during that time, Allen says he had lost more than five close friends to gun violence.

When he became a father at 21, he decided his hustle days were over. Turning to street photography, Allen became obsessed with documenting his surroundings, teaching himself the technical aspects through YouTube tutorials. Photography, he says, saved his life in a way that isn’t always metaphorical. When his best friend was killed, Allen recognized how easily he could have been there. “The only reason I wasn’t with him was because I went to take pictures,” he says. “I turned to alcohol for a while to cope. But photography was really my way to release that stress.

Nothing could prepare him for what having all eyes on him would feel like. Time’s first cover garnered national attention, but its success in the wake of a community in crisis weighed on Allen, who says he attempted suicide shortly after he began to gain notoriety. “My success is built on Freddie Gray’s broken back. It’s on my mind every day,” says Allen, whose daily participation in the months-long uprising contributed to the stress. pepper spray. I was getting harassed by the police. … I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I’m dealing with my own PTSD and depression that I contracted growing up here,” says- he.” It was too overwhelming. I cracked up, you know.

It was soon after that Allen, now 34, felt he needed his own brand of activism to evolve. “Photography has saved me mentally, physically and emotionally, and I feel like it could do the same for so many young children,” he says. He launched a GoFundMe campaign for his program called Inspire the Youth in June 2015, and it quickly gained local attention before reaching Russell Simmons, who donated $25,000.

Allen was equipped with cameras and enthusiasm, but his early efforts fell somewhat flat. “I was like, ‘Who wants to learn photography?’ The kids insulted me,” he recalls laughing. But when 20 students had grown to five, he organized a small but passionate group. His next attempt, in conjunction with Windsor Hill Elementary/Middle School, generated such interest that Allen held an essay contest to select 10 students. Their work resulted in a photo exhibit at Baltimore’s Motor House art center. The next workshop, at Kids Safe Zone, attracted national media attention. Although his own career and the pandemic have made it difficult to run a regular schedule, Allen continues to visit schools and regularly distributes cameras to children in the community – around 600 so far.

Recently, during a photoshoot for the opening credits of the HBO series “We Own This City,” Allen met 20-year-old Keshana Miller, seven years after teaching her at Kids Safe Zone. “She came over and showed me some of her recent work that she’s done using her phone and told me she was still into photography,” he says. Impressed by her dedication, Allen promised to buy Miller a camera. As Miller prepares to graduate from high school this summer, despite some setbacks, she says art is vital to her life: “Art is part of me. It helps me become a better person because it motivates me.

Allen acknowledges that staying on his own turf put him in the civil rights movement and street photography, but sees it not so much as a niche as a vocation. Staying in Baltimore also makes him more accessible to the people he wants to inspire: “At the end of the day, when I get old and can’t hold a steady camera, I’m going to measure my own success by the number of kids I have. that I saved,” he said. “That’s why I’m still in Baltimore.”

Carita Rizzo is a writer based in Paris.

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