On April 12, 2015, the city of Baltimore was in complete agony over the death of another unarmed black man due to police brutality. This time it was the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a West Baltimore native, in police custody. The events which occurred after is what is now known as the Baltimore Uprising.
During the days of unrest, one man from West Baltimore made headlines after his photographs were featured on the cover photo of Time Magazine. His name is Devin Allen.
Allen just released his new book of photographs, A Beautiful Ghetto. There are not only pictures from the uprising, but also of everyday life of everyday people living in some of Baltimore’s most overlooked neighborhoods. The book also features a collection of original poetry written by several Baltimore poets. The first edition of A Beautiful Ghetto was released on May 22 and was accompanied by an author talk and book signing on June 17 at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
The AFRO spoke to Allen after the event. The following transcript of the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
AFRO: What was the concept behind this photo collection?
Devin Allen: Basically it was a book before I knew it was book. It started as a hashtag. I always look for words to describe what Baltimore is in an essence. It’s the hood, but I love being in the hood. So I was like, ‘How can I describe it in two words?’ So basically it’s beautiful to me when I see my homeboys, when I see my home girls, when I see my family, it’s beautiful to me. Some people don’t see it that way and it’s still a ghetto; a beautiful ghetto. When I first started photographing, I used to say “heart of the city” because I feel like this city has a big heart, but then I turned it into A Beautiful Ghetto. Then from the hashtag and Reginald F. Lewis [Museum] some people from Princeton came here to meet me and I told them about A Beautiful Ghetto and that’s how I described it to them.
AFRO: What made you put the two words ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Ghetto’ together?
Devin Allen: Because when people talk about my community, it’s not looked at as being beautiful. But at the end of the day, people live here. I see beautiful things every day. My mother grew up in the hood, my family comes from West Baltimore; it’s beautiful. I want people to [have] the idea to stop looking at the ghetto as just something that you want to have tucked away in the corner, something you just want to gentrify. It’s actually something that I feel like is a beautiful place. I want to show people how to learn to love it. Once you love it, people will treat it better. That’s the whole idea of A Beautiful Ghetto, to show the positive, but also show the negative. It’s kind of a bittersweetness.
AFRO: Did your success with the iconic Time cover help with the making of this collection?
Devin Allen: I think that photo lead to everything. It put me in a position to not only make this book, but give back to my community. Once I had the right eyes, I was able to excel, doing things that I’m not supposed to be able to do coming from West Baltimore and also bringing that fruit back to the community and inspiring more kids to think outside the box, by going against the grain.
AFRO: Out of all the photos you have taken, which one means the most to you or which one is your favorite?
Devin Allen: I don’t have a favorite, but there is a lot of them that mean a lot to me. The photo of the mother taking out her daughter’s hair on the stoop, that’s one of my favorite photos. The Time cover is actually not one of my favorite photos, I think it’s a good image, but it’s not one of my favorites.
A lot of people that I photograph are no longer here. There’s a photo of a local boxer by the name of Telly [Pridgett], I got a photograph of him in his neighborhood with his fists up and everything. That’s a powerful image for me for the fact that he’s not here anymore.
AFRO: What can we expect from you next?
Devin Allen: The sky’s the limit. Swizz Beats (rapper/hip-hop producer) gave me a camera at the Gordon Parks Gala [held in New York in honor of the noted Black photographer Gordon Parks], so I’m looking forward to that. The next thing is actually taking my work to the next level and making it spread and taking the Baltimore story around the world, so hopefully I’ll be represented by a gallery or be in a gallery soon. I’m still learning photography, I’m still fairly new at it, so I’ve been at Under Armour studying different styles of photography. In my new style, I kind of want to switch it up. I really want to dive into fashion. I want to do everything Gordon Parks did and that’s the goal to be the modern-day Gordon Parks, but better.