Photo: © Devin Allen, courtesy of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum (detail)
The Gordon Parks Foundation has named photographer Devin Allen as one of two inaugural recipients of a new fellowship program. Allen, who was born and raised in West Baltimore, catapulted to national fame when his documentary photograph of an unidentified black man running from a phalanx of police made the cover of Time magazine in May 2015 – only the third time the work of an amateur photographer had ever received such prominent placement.
The photograph was taken on April 25, 2015, as Allen documented the Baltimore uprising in the wake of the extrajudicial execution of Freddie Gray. Allen, who grew up just five minutes away from the site of Gray’s fatal encounter with the police on April 12, told Crave last year, “People don’t understand Baltimore. They only think of ‘The Wire’…it’s worse than that. But we have a strong community. My city is real. There’s no sugar coating. It’s a small city. In twenty, thirty minutes I can be anywhere. You see the issues the people face. That’s why I love it so much. If you’re from Baltimore you can make it anywhere.”
Indeed, Allen has shown the world he has what it takes to make it. Committed to his community, he established “Through Their Eyes,” a project that trains Baltimore students in underfunded public school in photography. The mission is to arm the youth of his city with cameras, not guns, and to show them how to spread “hope and love through art.”
Through crowd-sourced fundraising, Allen provided students with cameras, donated his time holding workshops, and organized exhibitions of the student work. The Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship Program, which was established this year, awards up to $10,000 for social-justice themed programs, and will be used to help sustain “Through Their Eyes.” The Foundation also awarded a second fellowship to British journalist, photographer, and filmmaker Harriet Dedman for her project “Beneath These Restless skies.”
Of his work, Allen told Crave, “Difficult situations woke people up from everyday life. We live in The Matrix. We’ve got jobs. We’re paying bills and ignoring the issues in the community. Death woke people up. It shined a new light. I want my photographs to inspire people to find their talent to make a chance. It feels good to bring that to my city. No one comes to Baltimore. We fought this battle on our own terms.”
It is those terms that establish Allen as an inheritor to the legacy of Gordon Parks (1912–2006), one of the greatest photographers of all time. Skilled in all genres of the medium, from fashion, portraiture, and still life to photojournalism, documentary work, and cityscapes, Parks used the camera to control the narrative. As a photographer for publications including LIFE and Vogue during the golden age of magazines, Parks’ influence was vast and his stories were filled with depth, humanity, and grace.
Whether profiling Muhammad Ali, collaborating with Ralph Ellison on illustrations for Invisible Man, returning to his hometown of Fort Scott in Kansas, fighting for visual justice, or creating seminal photo essays that have just been published in I AM YOU, a glorious new monograph from Steidl, Parks’ body of work is one of the most credible sources of twentieth-century American history and art.
Devin Allen, who as featured on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network as part of the Super Soul Sunday series, is the natural heir to Gordon Parks, and it is through their mutual love of photography that we see a true portrait of the United States.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.