Photographer Shawn Young sees Baltimore differently
By Tariq Touré
Jan 03, 2017 | 4:39 PM
I sat on North Avenue one afternoon in mid-October during an abnormally hot day, the kind when global warming smirks at us, specifically Baltimore. I was there to catch up with Sandtown-Winchester photographer Murshaun Young, Shawn to friends, "Freeze" to some, @MrFreezePhotography to his Instagram followers. He had been robbed a week earlier and they took everything but his camera. Trying to do a interview on North Avenue, or the "A," is almost the same as taking the SATs at a Steelers vs. Ravens game, but I asked my questions one by one, and let the interruptions add to the ambiance. Young, who creates his art among this jubilant chaos, welcomed my curiosity.
The 28-year-old Baltimore native has strapping shoulders, a dark khaki complexion, and a leanly built face. His long arms dangle loosely toward the earth. When he speaks, it's partnered with raised eyebrows and a genial smile.
"See, I always have been good with technology. I even learned how to code. I went to Digital Harbor High School when they were first starting up," Young says. "After I graduated, I studied nursing and pharmacy tech but had to stop going to school because I had my daughter at the time, and wanted to focus on taking care of her."
In the face of debilitating stereotypes, Young is one of many black fathers across the U.S. who up until now have been uncounted in being in the lives of their children.
"Yeah, so their names are Jordan and Corey. Jordan's a princess and Corey is a boss," Young says, then grins and slides his right hand across the collar of his hoodie. He continues on about his two beloveds as we walk up Cumberland toward North Avenue. "I think that Jordan already likes photography. She wants to know how to use my camera and everything."
If Baltimore has a shortage on anything, it may never be cameras. An era where pixel documentation is the gold standard coupled with an eerie attraction to what some would call "trauma porn" brings people from all over, camera in hand to "shoot." Kids are seemingly more fascinated with them than ever. Black youth especially are being introduced to the art in droves. And Instagram, the largest gallery by the best curators of capturing life in the world, has opened up the doors for black photographers: There's Baltimore photographer Devin Allen, whose images made their way onto the cover of Time; and it has etched out a lane for Yasin Osman, a 21-year-old Somali-born, Toronto-based photographer who is revered for his documentation of refugee life and stunning city-scapes.
Young's IG features his images, which counter dehumanizing tropes about black city life. A scroll through his archive captures serene architecture decorated by Baltimoreans, portraits of fudge-skinned babies, and his personal friends sharing intimate moments.
Initially, a different kind of Internet fame came Young's way. He was Internet-famous back during the Baltimore Uprising when he grabbed hold of a CNN microphone live on the air and expressed all the sentiments of dispossessed Baltimore: "Fuck CNN." With an impatient concision, Young made the origin of his comments plain. "I told their camera crew not to be down here exploiting what was happening for ratings. Low and behold they were right there, talking about everything but the injustice."
But since that viral moment, Young's focus has been on countering CNN cameras with his own.
"So I had three cameras since I got my first one last year...I had been up on the 'A' one day and left it outside not really thinking and when I came back it was gone. A similar situation happened with the second one," he says.
Young continues, walking and talking and shaking hands with a barrage of friends and acquaintances who pass by. The Avenue is alive as we post up adjacent to an Ace check cashing business. Even the concrete on North and Pennsylvania hums at the top of the hour.
"One of the craziest moments that happened for me was meeting Devin Allen. We got into a conversation about photography and he literally, and I mean literally gave me his camera off of his neck. I told myself I'd take it seriously then," he says. "Devin was an inspiration. So after then it was really on. Photography is my way to get access to people on a different level. I feel like documenting is helping them. And if it is I want to help millions of them. Like most people see drug addicts and drug dealers around here but I feel like my photos show them another side—people should know that we are surviving with almost nothing here."
Young is again interrupted, along with everyone else, by a friend of his named Black, a sturdily built man in his mid-40s who is darting in the middle of the street chasing a white SUV down on foot with his hands flailing in the air. The woman in the SUV is startled and brings the car to a screeching halt and then she recognizes Black as he screams "Damn cuz where you been at?!" They embrace through the driver side door. The whole corridor erupts in laughter.
"See that's another thing, like, I want to shoot video too someday. It's moments like that happen every day around here," he says. "One day when I'm prepared I'm going to do a documentary. You got people like Black who's funny as hell. You have the addicts who are in a messed up situation because the rehab clinic sometimes puts them in position to buy more drugs. It's so many storylines out here."
National media attention since the Baltimore Uprising has further put black Baltimore under a kind of microscope—viewed from the outside with little control of their narratives. Young believes he should be first of many to document the history as it's taking place.
"The biggest story is how we survive. And that should be told by us as much as possible. Now I'm not going to lie—if we need outside help we'll take it. If I had to leave to get resources to document and come back I'd do that, too," he says. "But one thing is for certain: You ain't about to post up on these corners and start rolling with your camera, somebody is going to check you."
Young constantly checks his Instagram to see where his follower count is and what photos they are "like"-ing—it means more eyes on his photos, which means more understanding of his city.
"At first I didn't care too much for [Instagram], but then I saw people start really liking the pictures and more followers hop on," he says. "I was like, 'I'm going to really use the platform for what it's worth.'"
Becoming a documentarian of living black history has changed how sees the city, too.