UMBC student photographs site of each 2016 Baltimore homicide in 'Stains on the Sidewalk'

UMBC student, photographer Amy Berbert: "I'm planning my whole life this year around other people's deaths."

Once you realize what you're looking at in Amy Berbert's seemingly commonplace photograph of a car parked at night in front of a white frame house, it's the footsteps in the snow that provide an emotional jolt.

Are those blurry indentations moving toward or away from the front door with that welcoming porch light? It's hard to tell. And who left them? Was the person in a hurry, and if so, why?

"The footsteps," says Lynn Cazabon, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, "testify to the presence of a person who is no longer there."

Indeed.

The house is in the 5900 block of Winthrope Ave. It was on that block* at 7:34 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2016, that 24-year-old Brian Tabb was pulled from a white convertible. He had been fatally shot.

Berbert is Cazabon's student, and the 22-year-old college senior snapped that photo at 7:34 p.m. Jan. 7, 2017 — precisely one year to the minute after police were notified of Tabb's shooting.

It's part of a series of photographs that Berbert is creating for the Instagram presentation Stains on the Sidewalk that will memorialize the 318 people who were victims of homicides in 2016 in the city of Baltimore. Berbert posts each image the same day she takes it.

Her synopsis: "An Exploration of Homicide in Baltimore City. Same Day. Same Time. Same Place. One Year Later."

It's reminiscent of other projects that use art to drive home the toll exacted by murders, from Single Carrot Theatre, which for years did a staged reading of the "Murder Ink" column started by Baltimore City Paper's Anna Ditkoff, to the toe tags bearing the names of the victims of gun violence that were attached to a chain-link fence in an exhibit last year at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

The 11th photo in the series is of a dark corner of Venable Avenue and Old York Road. In the background, a sign displays the octagonal red symbol for "stop."

It's the same block* where 29-year-old Robert Ponsi was fatally stabbed at 9:10 p.m. Jan. 9, 2016, while riding his bike home from his restaurant job.

Like Berbert, Ponsi was an artist and a photographer. His mother feels sure he would have approved of the photography series.

"I would hope that it would wake a couple of people up and shake a few foundations," Dawn Ponsi-Miles says.

"Right now, the entire city is hurting. The murder rate is so far out of control that it needs to continually be brought out and set in front of everybody. Anything that does that and that treats Rob's memory with dignity and respect, I'm fine with."

To find locations, Berbert mines online databases of homicides kept by The Baltimore Sun and City Paper. The images she takes with her camera, a Canon Mark III, "aren't gruesome and are respectful of the people involved," she said. "They don't judge anyone. It's just a moment of silence to remember these people, and the fact that they lived and died in that place."

During the first month of 2017, Berbert posted 15 photos, including one commemorating 53-year-old Eugene Gordon Jr., who was shot on Jan. 16, 1992, but didn't succumb to his injuries until 14 years later.

"January of 2016 had only 15 homicides," Berbert says, and then pauses to reflect on the strangeness of what's she just said.

"'Only.' That's kind of a weird thing to say. But there were almost 40 homicides in Baltimore in July."

She came up with the idea for the project last year after mulling over a grim statistic.

2015 recorded the highest number of homicides per capita in Baltimore's history: 344. 2016 had the second-highest number of per capita homicides, and 2017 is off to a disturbing start, with 32 homicides in January alone.

For a class project her junior year, Berbert created cinemagraphs, or still photos containing an element that moves, of a few of the places where people were fatally shot, stabbed or burned in 2015.

Her teacher and other students found the images that resulted compelling and wrenching. But it was the response that Berbert received after exhibiting two of the cinemagraphs in a Rockville gallery over the summer that convinced her to revisit and expand on her original project.

"The gallery was located in a nice neighborhood with a lot of wealthy people," says Berbert, who herself grew up in Montgomery County.

"Their visitors were shocked by the cinemagraphs. They said they'd never realized what the situation was or seen it presented in such a personal way."

Berbert spent last fall working with Cazabon planning the project that would become her senior thesis. The cinemagraph angle was reluctantly dropped; it was too difficult to pull off at night, when it's dark and when most homicides occur.

Though the project will only be half-finished when Berbert graduates in May, she's committed to seeing it through.

"I'm planning my whole life this year around other people's deaths," she says.

"I can't go to my cousin's wedding and I can't go to Cancun with my boyfriend over spring break because I have to be here for these people."

The project also means it's not unusual for the petite Berbert to venture alone and late at night into areas with high crime rates. She keeps her wits about her, texts her parents when she leaves for each shoot and when she returns, and says that so far she hasn't encountered any unpleasantness.

Cazabon says it's unusual for students to demonstrate the level of commitment shown by Berbert.

"Amy is an artist," Cazabon says.

"She has a passion, and she's driven. I never need to tell Amy to do more work. I'm just trying to advise and guide her, to basically do no harm."

Berbert already knows she'll want to do more with the photos once her project wraps up on Dec. 31. With Cazabon's help, she's applying for grants. Possibly, she'll publish a book of the photos. With luck, she'll find another gallery — ideally not in Baltimore, but in a more privileged enclave — to exhibit her images and make a statement about the cumulative effect of a year's worth of violent deaths. She isn't reaching out to the families for her current project, but says that might change if the project has an extended life.

Even in its earliest weeks, Berbert's photos are beginning to have an impact. Berbert and her photographs were featured on Spin, a music and popular culture website that receives tens of millions visitors monthly.

She's only been recording homicides for a month, but Berbert said the project already has had an impact on her.

"I was driving home for work the other day, and there were these two really young teenage African-American boys sitting on a stoop," says Berbert, who is white.

"They were surrounded by all these police officers, and I just started crying. I don't know if they were doing something wrong. But, some of the people doing the killing and some of the people getting killed are kids. That's heartbreaking.

"Before I started working on this project, I knew I had stereotypes. But, every time I go out I'm faced with them. I don't know if this project is going to change anyone else. But, I think it's changing me."

For more of Berbert's photos, go to instagram.com/stainsonthesidewalk/.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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* This article has been updated to clarify that Berbert photographs sites on the blocks where the homicides occurred; she cannot in all instances determine from public records the precise sites of the homicides.

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