BALTIMORE — Devin Allen plans to get the word “smile” tattooed on his trigger finger.
It will be a nod to his West Baltimore ’hood — where more friends and peers than he can count on all his fingers have died in gun violence. It will also be a wink to his craft, the one he uses to capture this city, his “beautiful ghetto,” in powerful black-and-white photos that have made him a surprise media sensation.
In late April, the then-26-year-old shot his Fuji X-T1 over and over again as demonstrators took to the streets to protest the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury in police custody. Marching alongside the protesters, Allen snapped portrait after portrait that offered a view from the front lines in the days after Gray’s death.
Using the WiFi on his camera, he uploaded dozens of his raw photos onto Instagram and Twitter, sharing them with his several thousand followers in real time. Soon enough, Rihanna and rapper King Los reposted a few of his snaps.
“I just cried,” Allen recalls of the moment when he saw his image framed in red on the front of the magazine. “And then I called my mama, and she cried.”
Now, the cover photo — a shot of a solitary blurred figure running from a wall of police in riot gear near Camden Yards — is being blown up for Allen’s first professional photography exhibit. “Awakenings, In a New Light” opens Friday at Lewis Now, the new free community space in the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. The show runs through Dec. 7.
Dressed in cuffed skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors and sporting a well-trimmed afro, Allen was helping out with the exhibit installation on a recent gray afternoon. Keeping it “raw and street,” huge floor-to-ceiling prints are being wheat-pasted onto the walls around the gallery space. The 20-foot-wide portraits are dotted with imperfect bubbled ridges, like concert posters on an abandoned building.
“I hope this exhibit can show my people in a different light,” he says, pointing out how his larger-than-life-size photos pull you into the scene. While outside media parachuted in and filmed the sensational parts of the riots, Allen was there when it all started. He remembers photographing mainly peaceful demonstrations until, he says, a clash ensued April 25 when some fans outside Camden Yards started yelling racial slurs.
Outsiders made the rioting that followed Gray’s funeral on April 27 seem like an overreaction to one man’s death, but Allen maintains that tensions between the mainly black inner city and the police had been boiling for a long time. He’s been racially profiled himself, he says. Once, walking home from Baltimore City Community College, two police officers looking for a 6-foot-tall man with a dark complexion stopped him. “I’m like 5-foot-8, short, brown skin,” he says. “They took my books and dumped everything in the street. My homework was flying out and everything.”
The riots, he says, were started by kids just like him, sick of the injustice. “The gasoline was already all poured out and you drop that one match,” he says. “Freddie Gray was that match.”
Allen also captured something that others didn’t: He stuck around after the violence, taking photos of the community coming together again. “They was doing cookouts on some blocks since a lot of stores were closed,” he says. “Kids playing basketball, dancing and singing, the day after Freddie Gray’s funeral. No news reporters.”
“He gives a holistic picture of what was happening,” says Skipp Sanders, the museum’s executive director. Not just the looting or the smashed police cars.
Museum exhibits manager Dave Ferraro calls Allen a “social documentarian,” more digital than fine art, since he doesn’t sweat it when his photos need to be cropped or altered slightly. Allen uploads nearly every shot from his camera onto his iPhone (recently upgraded to 128 gigabytes, he declares proudly) and barely uses Photoshop anymore, let alone opens his laptop.
That doesn’t mean that he’s not a perfectionist. Shooting upward of 200 photos a day, he turns off the continuous shot feature on his camera — the fast click, click, click that captures multiple shots with a single press of the button. He likes to take time composing each shot rather than letting the camera do all the work. “Every frame has to be on point,” he says. Shooting this way in heavy-action scenes such as the riots can make manually focusing difficult, but he likes the blurring effect, which can make a photo look like a painting, he says.
A mash-up of wide-eyed novice and real talent, Allen taught himself how to use the camera — which he begged his grandmother to buy for him — through YouTube tutorials and trial and error. “I didn’t find myself until I was 23, when I got a camera in my hand,” he says.
When his daughter, Amari, was born three years earlier, he was still trying out different roles. He tried his hand at poetry and said he played the corporate game at Transamerica insurance. Until a few weeks ago, he was working the overnight shift at a home for people with developmental disabilities. After missing a week’s worth of sleep to work at night and photograph during the day, he decided to dedicate all his time to becoming an artist.
It’s a role that has disconnected him from a lot of the people he grew up with, including his daughter’s mother. “I went from having braids with gold in my mouth” to spending his days taking photos and living with his mom to save money, he says. “But I found myself, and I’m happy.”
A single mother, Gail Allen demanded respect and was a stern disciplinarian. But she’s also a goofball who gave him wet willies and helps raise his daughter when he has custody. “We’re best friends,” he says. “We get some Yuenglings. We chill.”
Now, he wants to leave behind a legacy for his daughter and other children growing up in Baltimore, where he says death is “never that surprising.” He’s set up a Go Fund Me campaign to raise $10,000 for camera equipment to teach neighborhood kids photography and give them an outlet other than drugs or violence. “I want to show them they have a voice,” he says.
Before his images went viral (he now boasts nearly 79,000 followers on Instagram and more than 10,000 on Twitter), Allen thought about moving to New York to be around a larger artistic community. But he realizes that there’s still work to be done in his home town and other towns like it: “I want to go to Chicago, Detroit, L.A., Compton . . . the projects in Miami,” he says.
There are lots of other Baltimores, where people outside the inner cities can’t comprehend that racial and class tensions are alive and well. But by capturing that in an image, he says, he can give them a peek into why riots happen.
“My pictures are supposed to keep you aware,” he says. “To make you think. To make you feel.”
Allen’s a smiler. The gap between his front teeth is on constant display as he takes photos and slo-mo videos of the installation’s progress.
“I want to make history,” he says. “I want them to talk about my work in 100 years.”
But most of all, he says, pressing an invisible shutter button with his trigger finger, he wants them to smile.