“We need a renaissance”: Photographer Devin Allen on why art is necessary for social change

Artist Devin Allen talks to Salon about Baltimore, his new book "No Justice No Peace" and the power of the image

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published November 6, 2022 8:00AM (EST)

Devin Allen (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Devin Allen (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Have you ever watched the NBA draft and seen how, when a guy from the hood is selected as a lottery pick­­, his whole section goes crazy when the cameraman pans to capture his reaction? 

I have seen this phenomenon on draft nights since childhood. I even used to dream of being in that position one day. When I was younger, I never noticed how big-time white players only pulled up with their parents and maybe a girlfriend. I honestly can't remember a time when a poor white dude was selected early, causing all the homies up in his section to bust bottles and celebrate their last day in poverty as a collective. I'm sure there are many white millionaires who take care of their whole families, but it kind of seems like a choice. When you make it as a Black person who grew up poor, it is expected.

You don't even have to become a millionaire; just experience the smallest amount of success, like getting a job at the burger joint, and watch how instantly you will be responsible for making sure your whole hood has unlimited access to free burgers. Award-winning photographer Devin Allen has been experiencing the pressure of being that guy from the hood who made it since he gained worldwide attention for his protest photography after the death of Freddie Gray. 

Gray died as a result of injuries he received from a rough ride in the back of the Baltimore County Police Department paddy wagon after he was arrested for carrying a legal knife back in 2015. Baltimore was already brewing with anger after years of unfair harassment from its crooked police department. That, in combination with Gray's killing, caused the city to erupt. Allen, a West Baltimore native, took to the streets with his camera in hand and captured everything, producing images that landed in multiple news publications, celebrity Instagram accounts, on television, and eventually making him only the third untrained photographer in history to have one of his photos on the cover of Time magazine.

Since then, Allen has become a highly sought-after photographer; he snagged another Time magazine cover, headlined exhibitions, became the first photographer with his own sneakers, signed a deal with Leica cameras, published his first collection, "A Beautiful Ghetto," and has been taking care of his neighborhood by giving out money and cameras, mentoring troubled kids, creating jobs and helping other artists find their footing. Allen, who just released his sophomore collection "No Justice, No Peace," shared with me on "Salon Talks" why giving back, even when it makes him uncomfortable, is so important.

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Allen here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about his new book, how he wants to grow his career beyond photography and why he wants Jaden Smith to play him if they ever make a movie about his life. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Can you start off by talking about what you've been up to since we last had you on the show?

It's been a long journey. I think the last time we did an interview, I had just gotten the Gordon Parks Fellow and I was going to my show, "A Beautiful Ghetto," at the headquarters. That's been a beautiful relationship that has been growing and growing and has gotten me a lot of opportunities. I was in HBO's "A Choice of Weapons," where I was able to work with Ava DuVernay, Jamel Shabazz, Ruby Frazier, and Spike Lee. It was an amazing moment just to be in a film, not even acting, just being myself, and then that opened up more doors. Since then, I was able to work on "We Own This City" here in Baltimore, playing myself in a little cameo during the uprising.

Unfortunately, due to COVID, I wasn't able to travel much outside of the country, but I've been able to study and hone my skills over time. I'm getting better with interviews and things like that, and then I've been working on this book the entire time during COVID. I started working on it in late 2020 after everything that happened with George Floyd, and my second Time magazine cover was published around that. So I'm still on the ground, still working, still teaching. A lot of it was done over Zoom. I had the Under Armour collaboration, where I designed four shoes for Under Armour, including a collaboration with Spike Lee where we donated all the money to teaching Baltimore City kids photography, so I've been busy.

You've got to be the only photographer with a sneaker. 

"I'm lucky. I'm the photographer, so a lot of times I don't get into the squabbles of the activists."

I think it was in an interview with "USA Today" or one of those interviews when they [said], "You're the first photographer with your name on the shoe." Not just one, but I had four. It was crazy, but it was just awesome. The collaboration also had imagery of Baltimore's youth, and boxing, basketball, local kids, and local teams from local gyms, and highlighting the sometimes-forgotten heroes: coaches. 

Your first book, "A Beautiful Ghetto," was your big introduction to the publishing world. You took us through parts of Baltimore where people don't go. When people come to town, they go to the trendy spots, they go to the restaurants, they hang around downtown, but you took them to the world where you come from. You showed the beauty inside of that world, and it was a really special book. I feel like you upped everything on the next level with "No Justice, No Peace." Tell us about it.

"A Beautiful Ghetto" was basically my love letter to Baltimore. I wanted people to better understand what Freddie Gray looked at and what Baltimore was like in everyday life. It was focused on Freddie Gray and everything that happened in 2015, but I still continued that work after Freddie Gray. 

A lot of people don't know that Baltimore is a very activated city when it comes to activism and fighting back and resilience, so I still continued that work over the years, still supporting. I don't go to other cities often because I have respect for those communities. I'd rather work with and get close to local artists to know what's going on because I know how it feels when people come into my city and want to tell me about my city and try to get shine off of it. This book is still Baltimore-focused, but it's looking at the larger picture. 

Through photography, I find that's one of the best mediums when it comes to collaborating and working with people like you, like Kondiwani [Fidel], like Tariq [Toure]. Just being around so many writers in Baltimore, I found the power of collaboration. What I wanted to do with this book was what I learned from just being on the ground.

I'm lucky. I'm the photographer, so a lot of times I don't get into the squabbles of the activists. Every activist has their own way of going about things — "I'm right," "You're wrong." Some activists feel like you're not militant enough and some activists are, "Well, we're all about peace and tranquility," and some activists are, "Well, we don't support trans lives." Then other activists are like, "Well, you can't say Black lives if you don't include trans lives." 

It is all these nuances and all these different issues and these different perspectives, but the underlying goal of everybody is to be free and not get killed because of the color of their skin. So, what I wanted to do with this book was collaborate with a bunch of different writers that can tap into those different spaces and understand that it might be a simple goal, but it's very, very complex. That's why I bring in people like Keeanga-Yamahtta [Taylor] from Princeton, but then I bring in people like Lawrence Bernie, who talks about George Floyd being an artist, reminding us that he was a human being. You could turn around and read Wallace Lane, who talks about the problem with the pandemic, where we are so worried about COVID, we forget about people in the inner cities and the needs that we have, that we have been neglected before COVID, so I try to bring in a whole bunch of different perspectives.

It's funny that you made a point about the activists and how so many different groups, all oppressed groups, are figuring out ways to critique other oppressed groups. The person who's actually doing the oppression is just sitting back with his feet kicked up, drinking a cool drink, and watching all of the infighting happening between change makers. How do we get passed that? Do you think art will help bridge those gaps?

I think art is a vehicle to bridge gaps, educate and bring people closer. As a visual artist, when people are talking to me, I might not understand it verbally, but if you can put it in a poem or put it in a show, I might understand it better. These are different tools to get the point across. That's why directors are important, poets are important, painters are important. We need a renaissance to better understand some of these things, because just telling a person, "This is what it is," is not always the best way of doing it. 

I find that for me, as an artist and working on this book, I've learned new things. I'm always willing to learn, because I don't know everything. I feel like a lot of times people think they know everything and there's no way in the world you can know everything. So, as a photographer, I'm always digesting things visually and I try to do that in everyday life. I might not understand everything, but I know right from wrong and I know what needs my support.

Tell us about your creative process when putting this book together because we know that the bulk of the images are from you, but you selected some Gordon Parks photos, as well.

The process was very interesting. I think the book started to morph in different ways and something that I learned from my mom was, her favorite thing to say, "You've got to look to your past to understand your future." 

"The biggest thing is to go out, create, find your lane, and just grind."

I studied Gordon Parks's life in and out and really set out on a journey to be like him and follow in his footsteps and use my camera as a weapon. What I wanted to do with this book was show people where the inspiration comes from, because you would be surprised how many people don't know Gordon Parks or Jamel Shabazz. It's sad, but that's the world that we live in. We learn about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in Black History Month, but who was the person capturing the image that you're looking at?


I wanted to bring it full circle, that it was a Black photographer. It was many, but Gordon is my favorite, and I wanted to show that in the work. That's what started off the process, but that's not strong enough. I wanted to write a little bit about my life leading up to why I do the work that I do. I write a little bit about my friend getting killed by Baltimore City police officers and feeling like I didn't have a voice, leading up to finding the camera and then finding my platform. But when I started working with Brea Baker and Adrian Ingram, they were like that vehicle, where I have a young Black woman who's an editor that's on the ground, but then I have Adrian Ingram, who's older, who worked with Deborah Willis. So, I have these two amazing Black women on my side where we are bringing in the old and the new, the then and the now, but it's collaborative.

So, Brea Baker, when I say these are the type of people that I want, that I respect. I respect Tiffany Loftin. I'd heard about Sean Monterrosa and she's like, "Oh, I know their sisters." Can they write for the book? So, it was essays that I already read, like Keeanga-Yamahtta's essay, I've read a million times. I've read your essays. I've read Kondiwani's. I've read one Lawrence article, and when he sent me that one, I was like, "That's got to go."  

"When I meet artists, you could tell by the fierceness in their eyes how seriously they take it."

What I did was I pulled things that I already had read that I loved and then quotes that might have inspired me, but then people were submitting other things. I was just excited that people, I was able to pull from Jacqueline Woodson and Charlene Carruthers. Being on the phone with Leslie Arnold for hours that we forgot… We would just start talking about life, we wasn't even talking about what she could put in my book. She just said, "Oh, we had the same moral compass. Here, take whatever you want." Dominique Christina, "Hey, pick some photos. This is some of the photos I got, pick a photo that I need you to write about it," because I understood some of these people, their goals, their moral compasses, what they write about, I follow them on Instagram. So, I went at everybody differently and I think it worked and it came together beautifully. 

The images are beyond beautiful. They're powerful. The book is a piece of art. Sometimes with art books, the writing is glossed over. So, I would like people to study your images and follow those stories, but also, spend some time with the writing, because I think you curated it in a strong way. Do you feel like you got everything you wanted in this project?

I wanted more, but I understand less is sometimes more. I know a lot of times, as artists, we like to do everything by ourselves, but what I've learned from just being able to work with people like Paul Moakley and Aaron Bryan at the Smithsonian, or working with Peter at the Gordon Parks Foundation. Curation is very, very vital. You can overpower or overstimulate someone. So, of course, I wanted more. There were some essays that didn't make it, some poems that didn't make it. We was fighting word counts, so a lot of my essay got chopped up. But, I understand just giving a person just enough and not overstimulating them. So, at the end of the day, I feel like it's the perfect size, it's not too overwhelming, it's enough words, it's enough photos. Like you said, I didn't want the photos to overpower the words, but I didn't want the words to overpower the photos, I needed them to coincide and find balance and I think we did that. 

"When I'm old and I can't even hold a camera and I've got arthritis and all my pictures coming out blurry and shaky, the next generation can say, 'Devin inspired me.' 'Devin got a camera for me.' 'I took a Devin Allen workshop.'"

Your first book, "A Beautiful Ghetto," has been used in classrooms all over the country, but especially here in Baltimore, where you've been an inspiration to so many young people. When you were working on "No Justice, No Peace," were you thinking about that same audience?

Yes. Everything that I do, I gear it to the youth, because I know how it felt when I didn't have anyone to look up to. I grew up looking at the dope boys. They're the guys I wanted to be with. But if I can continuously be successful and create content that empowers and inspires a younger generation... Since "A Beautiful Ghetto," I've given out 600-plus cameras. One of my students is in college right now for video, one of my kids that took one of my programs is at Baltimore School of the Arts, the same school Tupac and Jada Pinkett went to. 

I'm seeing that change since "A Beautiful Ghetto," but "A Beautiful Ghetto" was more so about us. But I also want to make sure that I instill in these kids like, "Yes, I take pictures of famous people. Yes, I work for Under Armour, but the work continues." I want to make sure that they understand the same thing that Gordon and Roy DeCaravas and Jamel Shabazzes understood: the power behind the image that is beyond the likes on Instagram. The work, it's a tool, it's a weapon. 

The book is still geared for everybody. I try to put a piece of everybody that I've come across. The second Time cover that was shot at a Black Trans Lives Matter march, where they have been very supportive of me, and I make sure, the second anniversary come up, "Devin, where you at? You in town? We need you there." To the point where we have built a respect and a rapport for the work as a photographer and the person that I use that camera to elevate their voice, so I want to make sure I try to get everybody at least something in there for them that might inspire them. But the work is always going to be geared and packaged to try to inspire and engage the younger generation, because when I'm old and I can't even hold a camera and I've got arthritis and all my pictures are coming out blurry and shaky, the next generation can say, "Devin inspired me. Devin got a camera for me. I took a Devin Allen workshop. Devin came to my school and taught." I'm just doing the work that was passed down from Robert Houston and all the other photographers that came before me and I want to make sure that I'm a part of that legacy. In the next generation, I can be one of those marks of history that they could say they got it from.

On the internet today, everybody thinks they can be an artist. In this world of hypercreativity, where every single individual person walking up and down the street is a brand, what does it mean to be an artist today?

That's a tough question because I think everybody has their different views. It depends on what type of artist you are. You have content creators, you have artists. I consider myself an artist because I work with multiple mediums. When I meet artists, you could tell by the fierceness in their eyes how seriously they take it. Some people, "Oh, I'm an artist today," and then, "Oh, I'm a stripper today." They're hitting one lane and then another lane. "Yo, you still paint?" "Oh no, I bake cookies, yo, and I got the juice bar." 

"I'd rather work with and get close to local artists to know what's going on because I know how it feels when people come into my city and want to tell me about my city and try to get shine off of it."

Some people are still trying to find themselves and I love it, I love to see the growth. But when it comes to this, when I think about this, I live and breathe this, I make sacrifices to do what I do. I could easily say, "I don't want to do no more protests. I don't want to speak about what I've seen. I want to go move to France and shoot models for the rest of my life, done," but the work is that important to me and I feel it so strongly. So, when I think about artists, I'm thinking about those people that will put it all on the line. You can just see it, it's something that they give off. But then I know people that are content creators that are passionate about creating content. It's a very difficult question. It's cool to be an artist, a lot of people, oh, they think it's cool, but then when it's time to go buy that $100 canvas or it's time to buy that $1,000 camera or it's time to take this pay cut or do some work for free, you've got to take those Ls and those Ws. 

When I think about artists and when I look to an artist and when I'm like, "Oh yeah, they serious," I can just see how hard they go for it. Every artist that I know, that I've been inspired by, that I've worked with, they make me want to work harder. Some people want to be artists and they get scared. The biggest thing is to go out, create, find your lane, and just grind. 

You're talking about television a little bit — we want to know what's next for you. What's next for Devin Allen?

Working on this book really showed me that I'm good at curating. It's showing that I can actually, from hanging with so many writers, I can write. I get overwhelmed by it, but I've found my niche to it and how I can go about it, so I want to write more. I'm looking to do more photo essays. I definitely want to move into film. I've been on a couple of sets since then, shooting behind the scenes, shadowing directors and different things. My biggest thing is just expanding my creative prowess beyond the lens.

Since "A Beautiful Ghetto," I've done installations, I've done performance art, but people still put me in a box like, "He's a photographer," but I can do so many different things. So, I think the next couple of years, really inspired by Joshua Kissi and my boy Photodre [Andre Wagner] just directed something with the Nets, that's the lane that I want to go. They inspired me. But photography has its limits on what I can show a person, so I need more tools to get my point across. What if I do want to turn "No Justice, No Peace" or "A Beautiful Ghetto" into a short film? Those are the things on my mind right now of what I can do and what I want to do for the future, so just expanding, directing, writing more. Just creating more and working with different mediums, just so I can expand, because I definitely want to be one of the greatest artists of my generation.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Art Authors Baltimore Books Devin Allen Photography Salon Talks