Street Photography can be more than clever. More than witty and whimsical. More than the perfectly-timed candid. More than layers. More than light versus shadow. More than shock-and-awe flash. More than the beautifully composed street portrait. Yes, all of these parts of the big, beautiful mess that is street photography are equally deserving of a home within the genre and it is the eye-candy that our visual palates crave and styles we desire to capture. However, street photography can be important, and it can be powerful. This can be found where street and documentary photography collide, and the results can be ground-shaking. Devin Allen’s A Beautiful Ghetto is a document of such a cultural/social/political earthquake whose epicenter was Baltimore, Maryland, a far-reaching event whose tremors can still be felt to this day.
In April 2015, the world’s attention was turned to Baltimore. Television and the internet were feeding eyes across the globe with images of a city that was literally on fire with unrest. On the 12th day of the month, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man was arrested by the city’s police department for carrying what the police said was a switchblade knife. On the police van ride following the arrest, in which the officers failed to properly secure him, Gray suffered injuries to his neck and spinal cord and fell into a coma. On April 19th, Freddie Gray died as a result of those injuries. What the world saw on their screens in the following days were riveting. The day after Gray’s death, it was announced that the six officers involved in his death were suspended. The day after that, The Justice Department announced a federal investigation into Gray’s death. Protests in the community were growing, mostly peaceful. On April 24th, the city’s officials admitted that Gray wasn’t secured with a seat belt and that the officers should have gotten Gray medical attention far before the forty-five minute van ride was over. On the 25th, tension began boiling over with protesters marching from City Hall into the Inner Harbor area, where the world began seeing video of clashes with the police and destructive activity along with the urgent and unrelenting demand of justice for Freddie Gray. As each day passed and the protesting intensified, violence and destruction escalating, the video pouring in, there were photographers also capturing the turmoil. Devin Allen was one of those photographers, and his work can be said to be some of the most important of the protests, what Allen calls in his book, Uprising.
A Beautiful Ghetto is simply one of the most thought-provoking photobooks I’ve seen. On a personal level, it connects like a boxer’s punch to the gut. Living forty-five minutes north of Baltimore, I’ve been to Charm City more times than I could possibly count. Seeing bands, attending sporting events, visiting friends, shopping, sightseeing and dining. I’ve been to some of the places shown in A Beautiful Ghetto. However, Allen’s book made me realize how unfamiliar I was with the Uprising and the people of the city, specifically the African-American community. From the outside looking in, the protests, rioting, looting and violence can be viewed as misguided, misdirected… a judgement that can be quickly made by consuming what the news was feeding us. But, what great documentary photography can do is make one question their own feelings, opinions and authority in general. Devin Allen and A Beautiful Ghetto does those things and does it magnificently.
With A Beautiful Ghetto, Allen has given us more than the observations a photojournalist or the opportunistic street photographer would record. Born and raised in West Baltimore, Allen’s compilation of images impacts the viewer in a much more intimate manner. As a whole, the book is personal. A visual diary that could only be made by someone who just didn’t happen to be at the eye of the storm, or who reported to the scene, but by someone who lived there. By someone who is part of the community. By someone who was part of the protests.
The cover of A Beautiful Ghetto(Haymarket Books, 2017) is the very image that garnered Devin Allen nationwide exposure. The photograph of a black man running in the street with a squad of policemen clad in riot gear running behind him, was published on the cover of Time Magazine in May 2015. This was only the third time the work of an amateur photographer was featured as the cover. It’s safe to say the image launched Allen’s career. Since then he’s shot work for Under Armour, had shows in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Venice, Italy and been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul Sunday and TNT Network’s American Race programs. More importantly, Allen’s work is now in collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in the nation’s capital. The Gordon Parks Foundation awarded Allen one if its inaugural fellowships earlier this year and also exhibited his work. Allen also has a project called Through Their Eyes, which provides Baltimore students with cameras and instruction in districts with underfunded programs.
However, the now-iconic image is almost misleading as to the book’s content and contradictory to the title of the book. It led me to believe that it was going to be a compilation of images from the protests. This was not the case. There are several photographs of the unrest in the section titled Uprising, but they are prefaced by the section titled A Beautiful Ghetto, a selection of street photography and portraits from day-to-day life in the ghetto. The two sections show two very different points in time, the everyday and unrest. This makes A Beautiful Ghetto a whole greater than the sum of its parts, not only opening the door empathy but also paving a path to understanding the uprising. To thinking about the economic divide and race. To how the police and their actions are to be questioned. Things that may be uncomfortable for some to think about and discuss, but subjects that need to be addressed.
“When most people think about the word ‘ghetto’, they think of poverty, struggle, pain, violence, drugs. But for me, the word ‘ghetto’ is so much more. When I look deep into my community, I see a beauty that is often overlooked and unappreciated.”
Allen’s introduction to the photographs in the first section set the tone for A Beautiful Ghetto, but it’s the pictures themselves that speak volumes in their all-monochrome majesty. There’s heartwarming shots of children at play, of kids being kids. Families on stoops. Street portraits and candids. Barbers working in their shops and out on the sidewalk. On its own, this section stands strong as street photography work goes. Its obvious that Allen knows his way around a camera and is a skilled shooter. Sharp and superbly framed, the pictures form a narrative instead of being just a compilation of shots. There is more than the human element in this account, though. Husks and innards of deteriorating buildings. A hypodermic needle on the street. Memorials on the sidewalk. Allen works to giving us a complete picture of his Baltimore, and after looking at these photos, you can’t help but feel that he has succeeded. All is not well in the ghetto, all is not bad, either. To be totally real, the bulk of people who live outside the ghetto would never see it as Devin Allen presents it in this book. For that, we should be thankful.
Uprising ratchets the book experience, and make no mistake… A Beautiful Ghetto is an experience, to another level. This is history. Commanding images of the protest fill the section, demanding the viewer to linger on each page or spread. Intense is the word best used to describe Uprising. And the intensity doesn’t just come from the content, protesters in action, standing alone and in unison, expressions consisting of outrage, sadness and defiance. Police officers in their armor. Children with their arms raised in the “hands up, don’t shoot gesture. Fists raised in protest. Burned cars. The burned CVS. I remember some of these specific scenes from the television, but they are even more intense in Allen’s images, the stark monochrome a perfect fit. What makes Uprising all the more intense is realizing that these photographs weren’t shot from the sidelines. Allen was in it. He not only was documenting, he was protesting. Besides the obvious significance and purpose of the protests, Allen’s ability to take these photographs, and some are simply sensational, in the thick of all the chaos, is to be applauded. In A Beautiful Ghetto, Allen proves he’s an exceptionally skilled lensman in both street and documentary photography.
Essays by D, Watkins, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Wes Moore, Aaron Bryant and Gail Allen-Keary and poems by Tariq Toure fortify the book and amplify its voice. In fact, every page feels necessary. The sequencing and layout is magnificent and while urging the reader to keep turning the pages, the editing and the photographs also force the reader to stop and think. Really think.
A Beautiful Ghetto is a terrifically significant book and the most important one in my young photobook library. Street and documentary photography are not distant relatives and Devin Allen reunites them masterfully and passionately here. And that is the one thing that is at the very core of his book debut… passion. There’s passion in the resistance, The uprising. And it is notably evident in Allen’s desire to document it and the city he calls home.