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'Stains on the Sidewalk' photographer captured year of Baltimore killings, keeps at it

For “Stains on the Sidewalk,” Amy Berbert revisits every homicide location in Baltimore and shoots a photograph precisely one year to the minute after police were notified. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)

Amy Berbert couldn’t stop.

Even after she went out to the 2200 block of E. North Ave. at 1 a.m. on New Year’s Eve to snap the final photograph in her series, “Stains on the Sidewalk,” Berbert knew her work wasn’t finished.

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She had many reasons to call it quits.

Berbert, who now is 23, had accomplished what she set out to do as a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which was to revisit the approximate locations of each of the 318 homicides in Baltimore in 2016 and shoot a photograph precisely one year to the minute after police were notified. She’d awakened in the middle of the night more times than she could count to venture out in the dark and cold to city neighborhoods with high crime rates. She had skipped her cousin’s wedding, and she had spent spring break of her senior year on the streets of Baltimore instead of on the beaches of Cancun with her boyfriend. She celebrated her birthday by photographing two homicide locations.

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She’d talked about her project to news outlets from Spin to The Baltimore Sun to NPR. She has a job now as a marketing and communications specialist for the Calvert School, so her free time is limited. And, she’s learned something about the city’s troubled history of race relations.

But all those reasons were outweighed by the emails and messages she received on her Instagram account from the family members and friends of the homicide victims. They asked her to memorialize the people they loved who were killed in 2017 — when a record 343 people died.

“I got so much feedback from people saying they wanted me to continue that I didn't feel like I could just quit cold turkey,” Berbert said. “Just because the project ended, it didn't mean anything. Nothing changed. Instead, the violence just got worse.”

When she began documenting 2017’s homicides, she made a few concessions to necessity. She is no longer committed to taking her photos precisely one year to the minute after police were notified. Instead, she goes out whenever she has some free time and shoots several locations at once, but posts the photos to her online account on the first anniversary of each victim’s death. So far, she has taken 47 photos of 2017 homicide victims and has 296 still to go. Once she’s finished 2017, she’ll launch into 2018.

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“I think that this is something I will continue for as long as I am in Baltimore,” she said.

“Sometimes … I’ll meet family members holding a memorial service and they’ll tell me stories about the victims. If I’d been able to interview someone for every single photograph I took, there would have been a story for each victim. I want to contribute to society viewing homicide victims as people and not as statistics.”

With two fatal shootings Tuesday night, the recent reclassification of a decades-old shooting as a killing and another homicide Wednesday evening, Baltimore has hit 343 homicides in 2017, and a new record for killings per capita.

Berbert said that during the past year, she was frightened for her own safety just twice, when onlookers misunderstood her purpose, thought she was recording their possibly illegal activities and confronted her. But both incidents ended without violence to her or to her camera.

“I realized that I was just as sketchy to them as they were to me,” she said. “It’s their neighborhood, and I clearly didn’t belong.”

When pressed, Berbert acknowledges that being exposed to an unending pattern of tragedy can be draining. But, she prefers to play down her own emotions.

“People kept saying, ‘It’s so cool what you’re doing, so powerful,’ ” she said.

“But all I have to do was take a picture. Emergency response personnel pick up dead bodies, rush people to the hospital, notify families and investigate crimes for months and months. There are so many people doing so much more than I am that it doesn’t seem fair to say that the project wore on me.”

For "Stains on the Sidewalk," Berbert revisits every 2016 homicide location in Baltimore and shoots a photograph precisely one year to the minute after police were notified.

She said the experience has helped to clarify her own opinions about the causes of Baltimore’s escalating homicide rate. She was troubled, for example, when she began shooting the 2017 homicide locations and noticed they were clustered on a relatively small number of blocks.

“I’ll go out and shoot 10 or 12 locations that are just one minute from each other by car,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘This block looks familiar; I’ve been here before. It’s weird to realize that Baltimore has these really violent pockets.”

She thinks that before the homicide rate can decline, society will have to undergo a major shift in attitude.

“I believe that if we ever want any of this to change, then we need to be willing to care about the people who are committing the violence in the first place,” Berbert said.

“We need to see them as human beings who are influenced by their surroundings. A lot of the people who are the victims now were the people in the past who committed the violence. Maybe if we had cared about them before then, none of this would have happened.”

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