It was April 2015. Devin’s hometown of Baltimore was on fire.
Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, who died of spinal injuries in police custody.
Years of neglect, racism and inequality exploded.
“It was like a movie, like I still can’t believe it happened,” Devin told Foreign Correspondent back then.
“I understood the power of photography and I knew that people needed to see the real story and what was really going on.”
Devin Allen’s Time magazine cover in 2015. (Supplied: Time magazine)
While the mainstream media struggled to put the events in perspective, Devin Allen was ahead of the pack. He knew the streets and had the trust of the people.
He’d grown up in West Baltimore, experienced police violence first-hand and lost 20 of his friends to drugs and guns by the time he was 25.
He began as an amateur photographer with a camera given to him by his grandmother.
Devin didn’t just know the story of young black men in the city, he’d lived it.
“You know they were just sticking to the script ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ — that’s all they were worrying about,” he said.
“They wasn’t talking about how you know, we took back our community.”
One of his photographs of the uprising made it to the cover of Time magazine. He out-shot some of the best photographers in the country.
Success and opportunity followed. Since then, Devin has travelled the world and his story has featured on Oprah Winfrey’s network.
Now, five years later, in the days after George Floyd’s death, Foreign Correspondent has returned to Baltimore. Devin has won success and fame, but it hasn’t all been easy.
The heavy burden of success
At 32, Devin Allen is a photographer and mentor. He has given cameras and his time to more than 500 young people in his city.
“People think activism is always just being on the ground, being on the front lines,” he said.
“It’s way deeper than that, because you can’t be on the front lines forever, you know?
“And that’s the biggest thing — what’s the point of being on the frontline, gaining all this knowledge, if you can’t pass it down?”
Like many who experienced the 2015 Baltimore uprising, the memory of Freddie Gray’s death still weighs heavily.
“Every day that I wake up, every time I make an accomplishment, every time I do an art show — anything that I do — in the back of my brain I know the reason why I am here is because a black man had his spine broke and was murdered by police brutality.
“That’s why. I had to live with that every single day in my life.”
The feelings of trauma, guilt and confusion became too much. A month after Devin’s now famous photograph appeared on the cover of Time magazine, he tried to take his own life.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- ReachOut at au.reachout.com
- Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) on 1800 008 774
“My mother had to call the police on me, to stop me from hurting myself and take me to the hospital, right?
“When the police realised who I was, they said, ‘You that kid that took the Time cover. Why the f*** you try to kill yourself? You powerful as shit.’
“The police told me this in the back of the wagon, when they take me to the hospital. I woke up handcuffed to the bed.”
Devin has struggled with guilt since winning fame for his work covering protests over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. (Foreign Correspondent)
A painful history repeating
Devin is back on the streets in Baltimore again, photographing the latest protests against police violence. These days he makes a living out of his photography.
The video of African-American man George Floyd being killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25 has shaken him.
“I just couldn’t believe it was happening again,” Devin said.
“Hearing him say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and gasping for air and calling out for help — and just looking at that police officer’s face, it was just so mute. There was no emotion in it.”
History has repeated. The name George Floyd has been added to the roll call of African Americans killed at the hands of police, five years after the death of Freddie Gray.
And history has repeated for Devin Allen, too. His photograph of the latest protest rallies in Baltimore has given him his second cover on Time magazine.
“I am a vessel … I’m my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” he said.
“No-one else was on that street captured that image or anything close to it.
“And the universe spoke to me once I came through those dark times and was like, ‘This is your purpose.’ It’s a burden but it’s a burden that I have to bear. I owe it to my people.”