Devin Allen says that photography saved his life — two nights in a row.
Allen is the rookie photographer whose visceral and poignant images of the Freddie Gray uprising landed him on the cover of Time magazine.
But in 2013, he wasn't famous yet. He'd just recently picked up a camera for the first time and was in the grips of a new passion.
Instead of hanging out with his best friends as he would on a normal Friday, Allen says, he was in his kitchen at 8 p.m on Feb. 1, 2013, editing photographs. As a result, he wasn't in the 100 block of N. Bentalou St. when Derrick Lee was shot and killed while sitting on his front steps.
The following night, Allen went to a photography assignment in Station North instead of to a party with his lifelong friend Christopher Samuels. Samuels took a fatal bullet to the back of his head at 1 a.m. Feb. 3 near Wheeler Avenue and Baltimore Street.
"I was devastated," Allen says. "I trusted those guys with my life, and I think about them every day."
As a close friend to both men, he had a concern that he might be next.
"The sad thing is that I wasn't even scared," he says. "I'm 27 years old, and I've buried at least 20 friends. I'm used to death. I've gotten to the point that I stopped going to funerals. I don't even cry."
Given all that he's been through, it's remarkable that Allen's photographs aren't bitter or cynical. His images are open-hearted, even-handed and compassionate. The self-taught photographer tries to empathize with everyone he meets, including the Baltimore police officers with whom he has occasionally had troubling encounters.
An exhibit of 17 of his works — Allen's first solo show — opens Friday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
Paul Moakley, Time's deputy director of photography, described Allen's photo of a man running down the street in front of a line of baton-wielding Baltimore police officers as one of the powerful Time covers he's worked on.
"That was the moment when the situation went from being a peaceful protest to riots breaking out," he says, "and Devin captured it perfectly."
But the Time cover isn't Allen's favorite photo from the unrest. It might be his close-up shot of an African-American police officer whose eyes are brimming with tears. Or possibly, it's the touching portrait of a black protester coming to the aid of a white marcher who has just been maced.
"I want to unite people," Allen says. "I try not to be close-minded but to understand every side of the story. My goal is to create a conversation with each image."
After the city erupted following Gray's death, Allen knew he had to capture the protests. He worked out a system: Run to the end of the street, turn to face the oncoming marchers, and shoot until he was in the midst of the action. Then he'd climb a tree or a light pole and aim his camera from overhead.
Allen's protest photos went viral shortly after he began posting them on Instagram. Celebrities such as Rihanna, Ice Cube and Beyonce shared his work, while Fusion magazine and the BBC took notice. Time magazine posted some photos from Allen's Instagram account on its Lightbox photo blog.
Naturally, Allen's friends kidded him mercilessly about his newfound fame. They even made prank calls in which they posed as media figures. So, when Allen got a call on April 28 from someone who identified himself as a top Time editor, he was sure it was a joke.
"When I answered the phone, I was really dry and cold," Allen says. "Then the other guy said, 'No, no, I really am from Time.'"
The "other guy" was Moakley, who said that he mentioned that he might use Allen's photos in the magazine itself.
"But don't get your hopes up," Moakley said.
The following day, Allen learned that he was about to become the third non-professional photographer to have an image appear on the cover of Time magazine.
"I cried," Allen says. "I called my mother, and she cried. And then my mother called my grandmother, and they both cried."
After the May 11 issue came out, Allen's grandmother, Doris Green Brown, showed the magazine to so many people that her copy became tattered and worn. Allen had to ask the magazine to send him another one.
Allen could fairly be described as the eyes of Baltimore — or at the very least, as the eyes of the recent protests.
It's fitting that upon meeting this tall, wiry young man, a visitor first notices his brows. Thick, dark and curving halfway around the sockets, they add emphasis to his face, like exclamation points.
Allen describes himself as shy, and at a first meeting, his eyes tend to slide to one side as though searching for cover. But when he relaxes and becomes comfortable, they open wide and sparkle, the better to see … well … everything.
When Allen was growing up, he split his time between Catonsville, where his mother, Gail Allen, lives, and his grandmother's home in West Baltimore. He says his experiences were typical for a young man in a tough urban neighborhood.
"I put my mother through a lot," he says. "I hung with drug dealers and killers. It's nothing I'm ashamed of, because those experiences made me strong."
Allen reports being shot at while he was driving along Reisterstown Road, as well as being maced and tased.
Once, a police officer pulled Allen over while he was driving his mother's new Camry. The officer claimed that the auto had been reported stolen. Allen was handcuffed and spent a night in jail after a small amount of marijuana was discovered in the car.
Another time, he says, two officers who claimed that Allen matched the description of a criminal suspect dumped the Baltimore City Community College student's book bag all over the street and sent his homework flying.
Allen's mother worried terribly about her son and did everything she could to keep him safe, from scraping together the money for Catholic school to moving out of the city for the suburbs. Only after Allen began attending his mother's alma mater, Forest Park High School, did he settle down academically.
"If you're raising an African-American male, you never get to the point where you can say, 'The hard part is over,'" Gail Allen says. "He had this activism in him, and I didn't want to squelch him. I just prayed for the Lord to watch over him."
The birth of Allen's daughter, Amari, now 5, was a turning point for him. The single father supported his child with jobs in insurance, autism counseling and as a clerk in a shoe store.
Another turning point occurred when Allen picked up a camera in 2013 and realized almost at once that he'd found his calling.
"Before I started photographing, I ignored the world," he says.
"I had typical eyes. There were little things that I would overlook, people I walked past every day and I never saw the beauty in them. Now, I can't go anywhere without my camera. I take it with me to eat."
He began hanging out at Service Photo in Hampden, trying every piece of expensive equipment the store owned and asking a million questions but never buying anything. Allen's grandmother eventually lent him $1,800 to buy his first camera, and then allowed the young man to pay her back in installments.
Service Photo's owner, Burke Seim, remembers the fledgling photojournalist as "thirsty for knowledge." It was evident even then, he says, that Allen had tons of potential, so he made him welcome.
"Devin has a good eye, and that's the difficult part," Seim says.
"His work is just very real. There's nothing about it that's staged or set up. He knows where to be and how to use his camera to capture dramatic moments as they're happening."
But from a mother's point of view, it's the dramatic moments that look the most dangerous.
"The day of the protests, I put the news on, and I see my son taking pictures in the middle of all this chaos," Gail Allen says. "I called him and said, 'Please, please, please come home.'
"Naturally, he didn't listen to me. It's a good thing he didn't, or he wouldn't have gotten the photo that made the cover of 'Time."
In the past two months, enough professional opportunities have opened up for Allen to allow him to quit his day job and concentrate full-time on photography. At least one museum has inquired about obtaining his work, and he's made contacts at organizations ranging from Facebook to National Geographic.
"Devin is very talented," Moakley says. "He has a great eye, he makes layered, nuanced pictures, and he's just starting his career. He has the potential to become a great photojournalist."
There's only one thing that Allen won't do for his art — leave Baltimore, a city he loves and that (echoing the words of former Baltimorean Tupac Shakur) he describes as "a rose growing in concrete."
In fact, Allen recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000 so he can put cameras in the hands of inner-city kids.
"At one point, I was planning to move to New York to pursue photography," he says.
"But with everything that's happened, I've decided to make Baltimore my home base. I want to help out, as much as possible. Every aspect of Baltimore is beautiful to me."
If you go
"Devin Allen: Awakenings, In a New Light" runs Friday through Dec. 7 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Free. Call 443-263-1800 or go to lewismuseum.org.
Allen will participate in a public conversation about the uprising at 1 p.m. Saturday with activists Kwame Rose and Malacka Reed. Regular museum admission of $6-$8 applies.