Photographer who shot iconic riot photo: ‘Everyone needs to wake up’

Photographer Devin Allen’s image of a young masked man fleeing police officers during the Baltimore riots in 2015 landed on the cover of Time magazine and changed his life, he told admirers of his work at a talk at the public library in Randallstown, Md., on Wednesday night. (Photo by Eddie V. Toombs IV for TMN)

BALTIMORE – Photographer Devin Allen said he wasn’t surprised when Donald Trump was elected president, and he wasn’t shocked by the racism-fueled violence that erupted last weekend in Charlottesville, Va.

“People have been sleep for a long time,” he said. “I think that had to happen.

“America is like a volcano because we haven’t dealt with this stuff.”

Because some – indeed, many – Americans remain disenfranchised, tempers are bound to flare up.

“They give you an inch but they hold back a mile,” Allen said Wednesday night at a discussion at Baltimore County Public Library’s branch in Randallstown moderated by Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater.

“America pushes us into these corners,” Allen said, and stigmas “keep us apart.”

But now there are “no more gray areas,” he said, making an unintended double entendre that brings to mind Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose fatal injury in a police van kicked off Baltimore’s 2015 uprising.

The riots altered many lives but perhaps none as much as that of Allen.

On April 25, 2015, he was a 26-year-old aide working the graveyard shift at an assistant living facility just outside Baltimore. The former drug dealer was the father of a young girl and was struggling to get by.

Allen had started taking photos only two years earlier, first just for fun, then more seriously, trying to perfect his technique by shooting amateur models. He had no formal training in the craft although he studied the works of Gordon Parks and other legendary photographers.

But all that changed on that fateful April day, when he literally walked right into the photo that would change his life. As he was shooting the unrest in the city, which was like a forgotten pot that had simmered on a back burner for too long and was about to boil over, he came upon a young black man, his face partially covered with a bandanna, running from what seemed like an army of cops in riot gear.

He looked as if he were running for his life – and who knows, maybe he was. Allen instinctively clicked … then put the photo on Instagram … then boom … his life changed.

That photo made it to the cover of Time, becoming only the third image by an amateur photographer in the magazine’s nearly century-old existence to score that coveted spot. Time editors later chose the May 11, 2015 cover as one of the 10 best from all magazines published that year.

Now that photo has landed on another cover: that of his book, “Beautiful Ghetto,” which was published a month ago. The book showcases not only his compelling images of the riots but also his portrayals of everyday life in Baltimore: young kids playing in water spewing out of a fire hydrant, men getting haircuts and teens riding banned dirt bikes.

Devin Allen’s iconic photo graces the cover of his new book, “A Beautiful Ghetto.” The collection of black-and-white images capture everyday life in Baltimore as well as the 2015 riots. (Regina Holmes/TMN)

That photo led to a solo six-month exhibition in 2015 at the Reginald F. Lewis of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore.

And that photo led to him being one of two photographers who was awarded the And that photo led to a dream job as a commercial photographer at Under Armour. He gets to meet professional athletes and travel the world. He recently returned from China, where he shot a campaign with NBA “Golden Boy” Stephen Curry. A prominent billboard in downtown Baltimore showcases his image of boxer Gervonta “Tank” Davis, a native of the city whom Allen names as his favorite athlete to photograph.

But Allen hasn’t let the job go to his head. His passion is still his beloved Baltimore. “At Under Armour, it’s work. … When I document Baltimore, that’s for me.”

He said he is the only black commercial photographer at Under Armour. To him, working there isn’t really about meeting the athletes or globetrotting. Sure, those are nice perks but it’s really about showing black children and teens that they too could get a corporate job one day – and encouraging corporations to give black kids a chance, he said.

“It’s not about me. It’s about opening the door behind me. … about making people think: ‘What other gems do they have in Baltimore?’ ”

His other passion is teaching and inspiring the next generation. Children drive Allen. After the riots, he set up a GoFundMe account to buy cameras so he could teach photography to kids. He raised $3,000 in four days, then the founder of GoFundMe donated $1,000. Allen went to a local photo store (he prefers to support local businesses) and, with a discount, he was able to buy 10 cameras.

He started an after-school program at a public school. He now teaches a weekly class at Mervo, a vocational high school, and also teaches at the Kids Safe Zone, a hub that recreational, educational and therapeutical services for children in Sandtown Winchester, the hotspot for the riots.  The program is housed only blocks from the CVS that was torched during the riots.

“I’ve given out 150 cameras in two years.”

Now he is even more ambitious: His goal is to buy 400 cameras to give away this year.

The time he spends with children isn’t always about photography.

“Some kids just want to hang with me,” he said. “Even though we’re not family, we’re family.”

That’s the point he wants to make about Charlottesville, too: that we’re all in this together and we need to stick together to survive.

“Everyone needs to wake up. … We all need to back each other.”

He laments the sense of community he felt growing up in Northwest Baltimore.

“We need to bring back that oneness.”

He is concerned about the plight of not just African-Americans. He said he has participated in Muslim-ban protests as well as LGBT rallies.

“We all deserve to be free.”

Republished with permission from Talk Media News.