Baltimore photographer says pictures can change the news narrative

By Billy Owens
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

Photographer Devin Allen spoke to Towson University students on Thursday. Photo by Billy Owens.

Photographer Devin Allen spoke to Towson University students on Thursday. Photo by Billy Owens.

Only three amateur photographers have ever had their photos used on the cover of Time magazine.

One of them, Devin Allen, gave a guest lecture to about 50 students and faculty members at the Art Lecture Hall in Towson University’s Center for the Arts Thursday evening.

Allen, a 29-year-old West Baltimore native, said the purpose behind his photos of the 2015 Baltimore uprising, including the one that ended up on the cover of Time, was to tell the story and legacy of Freddie Gray.

“Photography can change the narrative [that the news media creates],” he said during the lecture, which was presented by Towson’s Department of Art + Design.

Allen said that his photography career was completely unintentional. He said the closest thing he did growing up that resembled art was drawing Dragon Ball Z characters.

“I literally tripped and fell, and that’s my career,” Allen said.

When he was 19, he said he was selling drugs, living out of his mother’s house and had a daughter on the way, which made him feel like his life was over. Allen said his daughter gave him a reason to live, and he stopped selling drugs and turned to performing original poetry.

His poetry career didn’t last long, Allen said, adding that he turned  to photography despite having no experience. Allen said he got his first camera in 2013, which was paid for by his grandmother’s Best Buy card.

Later that year, he said both of his best friends were fatally shot by the same man just a day apart. If he hadn’t been editing photos at those times, he said he would have been with his friends and could have met the same fate.

“Photography saved my life,” Allen said. “It was a wake-up call.”

He said he searched for black photographers on Google and found Gordon Parks, whose foundation awarded Allen its inaugural fellowship for his youth photography education project Through Their Eyes earlier this year.

Devin Allen shows a Towson audience some of the photos he took during the 2015 Baltimore uprising. Photo by Billy Owens.

Devin Allen shows a Towson audience some of the photos he took during the 2015 Baltimore uprising. Photo by Billy Owens.

The project, which was crowdfunded through a GoFundMe campaign, is dedicated to providing children with cameras and teaching them how to express themselves and tell the stories of others through photography.

“It’s out of this world,” Allen said in an interview after the letter, referring to  the fellowship. “It’s a Cinderella-type story since [Parks] was my inspiration, and it’s a blessing.”

Towson photography professor Liz Donadio said she arranged for Allen to come to Towson after seeing him speak at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore over the summer.

“I thought it’d be a great fit,” Donadio said in an interview.

Students that attended the lecture said Allen’s story was inspiring, especially considering his lack of formal photography training.

“It’s a world away from what I’m used to,” said Brendan Felch, a Towson freshman and design studies major who has five years of photography experience.

“It’s inspiring how he came from the bottom,” said Seth Cushman, a Towson freshman who is undecided and has two years of photography experience.

After the lecture, Allen gave out about 10 copies of his recently published book A Beautiful Ghetto to audience members that correctly answered questions about key ideas from his lecture. The book contains 120 of his photos which tell the story of the events leading up to the uprising in 2015.

Allen said he now shoots full-time for Under Armour, and in 2015 he traveled to Asia to shoot then-NBA MVP Steph Curry.

He said he’s moved forward from the Time cover, and advised the young artists in the audience not to tailor their creation toward getting a certain number of likes on Instagram.

“When you’re creating art, do it for yourself,” Allen said.

 

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