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Photo by Travis Jensen
Two police cruisers had pulled over haphazardly under the overpass on the opposite side of the intersection where I was stopped. When the light turned green, I moved to the left lane and passed carefully, a mix of safety and curiosity. The sidewalk along the underpass was lined with a couple of tents, and from behind the cruisers, I saw two officers pulling a black woman, barely on her feet, from one of the tents. The image startled me—it looked like something I had seen many times before in history books, on the news and, in recent years, on Instagram and Twitter thanks to community leaders like the photographer Devin Allen.
I was unsure of what to do. As a white man who grew up the son of a cop in rural America, but who, for many reasons, has always identified more with those at the margins than with those with power, I’m incensed by the daily displays of violence against black people. I could hardly imagine a scenario where a frail homeless woman deserved to be aggressively pulled out of her fragile shelter.
I considered stopping and pulling out my phone, capturing whatever was happening on camera, adding to the archive of modern police encounters with black and homeless people. But cowardice got the best of me. What would I do with the video or photos afterward—what was the purpose of capturing the image? What would they do or not do with me standing there? What would I do if they told me to leave? Who did I think I was that I should perform this act? Others with a greater voice and audience were doing a better job calling attention to these events. It was easier to drive away and analyze the situation later on with righteous indignation.
The image stayed seared in my mind, and the story and circumstances surrounding what I witnessed pursued me. What was that woman doing before the police arrived? Did the police officers grab her wrists so tightly that she now had bruises? Did they take her to the police station? Is she back on the street, hungry, looking for a new tent beneath a new underpass to call home?
...THIS ABILITY IS THE SECRET OF THEIR POWER AND ACHIEVEMENTS: THEY SEE WHAT OUGHT TO BE BY THE REFLECTION OF WHAT IS, AND ENDEAVOR TO REMOVE THE CONTRADICTION.
These questions only added to an ongoing inner dialogue about our photo-obsessed culture. 700 million people have Instagram accounts and Snapchat reports nearly three billion “snaps” are created every day. We pan around the bar we’re at on Friday night. We use face-recognition technology to give ourselves glasses and puppy ears. We show off our latest gains at the gym. We show off our feet—in our favorite shoes or in the sand or getting massaged and washed and painted by someone making minimum wage.
But why? What is the purpose of capturing these images?
It’s been 178 years since the public announcement of Louis Daguerre’s invention that has led us to this point. Roughly the same amount of time has passed since one of its first pioneers, Frederick Douglass, began putting photography to use for the cause of freedom.
While Douglass is known for his soaring oratory and noble statesmanship, he was also a practitioner of what he called the “great democratic art”—photography. When Douglass boldly freed himself from slavery in 1838 in Baltimore, he immediately began using that art in laboring to transform early American society into something that more closely resembled democracy than the genocide and slavery of its past.
“Man is the only picture-making animal in the world,” Douglass said. “He alone of all the inhabitants of the earth has the capacity and passion for pictures... Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements: they see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.” Douglass saw what ought to be for black people by the reflection of slavery, and saw himself as an individual, an artist and performer, who could begin to remove that contradiction. And so he set out on a decades-long journey to do just that.
HE RARELY SMILED, A CALCULATED MOVE TO COUNTER THE POPULAR REPRESENTATIONS OF BLACK PEOPLE BY WHITE ARTISTS AS MINSTREL TYPES, HAPPILY AT THE SERVICE OF THEIR OWNERS
Over the course of almost sixty years, Douglass put himself at the center of this work, intentionally making images as he wanted to be seen, seeking to look like more of a proper citizen than his white counterparts. The 1840s and 50s were about self-liberation for Douglass. He stared sternly, dramatically into the lens, a practice that was not common.
During the Civil War, Douglass remained defiant in photos as he wrote and published his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly. He challenged President Lincoln regularly and, in a letter to a Massachusetts Army general, announced that he would stop recruiting black troops for the Union army, stating that “colored men have much overrated the enlightenment, justice and generosity of [their] rulers in Washington.”
After the war, Douglass unclenched his fists and moved toward a stance that was less freedom fighter and more visionary leader. He rarely smiled, a calculated move to counter the popular representations of black people by white artists as minstrel types, happily at the service of their owners in the field or as entertainers. The careful attention to these details was a strategy of social progress, and a feat of public relations before public relations even existed.
Douglass remade the image of black people of his time, communicating a truth about their humanity and challenging the country’s understanding of freedom and democracy at exactly the right moment in time. The final photo of Frederick Douglass was taken shortly after his death, revealing his body peacefully lying in bed—gone long before the time of Martin Luther King, BB King, and Barack Obama.
On April 12, 2015, 120 years after that photo was taken, Baltimore police began pursuing twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray, Jr. through the streets of Gilmor Homes after Gray fled upon seeing the officers. Cameras of a different kind than Douglass could have ever imagined captured police lifting a pained, screaming Gray off the ground, having been tackled and cuffed for carrying a knife, the legality of which was later disputed at trial. Police then placed Gray in a transport van and drove around for forty minutes during which Gray suffered fatal injuries to his spinal chord.
THE SAME TOOL THAT DOUGLASS HAD PUT TO USE IN AN ATTEMPT TO TRANSFORM THE LIVES OF BLACK PEOPLE IN AMERICA HAD LITERALLY SAVED ALLEN’S
The city from which Frederick Douglass had fled slavery 177 years prior was about to erupt in violent protest over the death of a young man at the hands of the police officers he himself was fleeing. And standing ready to bear witness was a young man named Devin Allen.
At twenty-seven years old, Allen had already lost over twenty friends to the violent circumstances of Baltimore. Two of those deaths, his closest friends, happened on the same weekend in 2013. It’s likely that Allen would have been with them when they died, except for the fact that he was otherwise engaged with photo shoots. The same tool that Douglass had put to use in an attempt to transform the lives of black people in America had literally saved Allen’s, and after that experience, Allen was determined to stay off the streets and stay alive.
To that end, he got a job working from midnight to eight in the morning and would spend his days putting the lens to work. But Allen’s avoidance of Baltimore’s violence did not stop it from existing. As he watched people from his community rise against the police in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, as media outlets from all across the country descended to capture and broadcast their sensational imagery, Allen could no longer stay off the streets. “Most people see the riots of Baltimore, but they don’t understand the pain that caused those riots and caused that uprising,” Allen said in an interview for Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. “So I got my camera.”
Allen caught moment after moment as sad, frustrated, and angry people poured into the streets to take a stand against what had happened, and what had been happening long before Freddie Gray’s death. As the peaceful protests escalated toward violence on both sides, Allen found himself amongst a throng of police beginning to charge against a protester. Allen raised his camera with quickness, catching the drama of the moment.
Like Douglass, Allen seized the moment, and the technology of the moment, to have an impact on the cultural conversation. As he previewed the image on his camera, he knew it was a good one. While Allen spent the rest of the day shooting, his image rapidly spread around the Internet by people like Rihanna, Usher, and Ice Cube. Eventually, Time asked to publish the photo on the cover of their May 11 edition.
“Growing up, my family talked a lot about Civil Rights. When I look at the images from the Civil Rights Movement, and then I go back to my photos, it feels like time is repeating itself. So I’m just trying to figure out a way that I can play my part and fix things.” So Allen turned his Instagram into a feed for stories from the Baltimore he knows. Allen felt an obligation to be unbiased behind the lens and tell all types of stories that came before him. “I saw some good things and some bad things. I saw police officers show that they care, playing with kids—talking to the community, trying to find a solution. I saw people come from other cities to help clean up the streets; I saw people—black, white, Indian—working together and it was a beautiful thing.”
Whether it’s capturing the Baltimore police department playing flag football with African American teens, presenting the “faces of Baltimore” in simple portraiture, or covering the latest protest for the rights of black, gay, or transgender folks, Allen is following in Douglass’ steps by showing us what ought to be through the reflection of what is.
Allen has posted over 4,600 photos to his Instagram account, a number that makes the 160 photos of Douglass seem trivial. One of his more personal subjects is his daughter. And amongst the collection of photos of Frederick Douglass, one of the rarest is an image of the elder statesman with his arm around his five-year-old daughter, Annie, who would tragically die four years later.
WHEN I LOOK AT THE IMAGES FROM THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, AND THEN [LOOK AT] MY PHOTOS, IT FEELS LIKE TIME IS REPEATING ITSELF. SO I’M JUST TRYING TO FIGURE OUT A WAY THAT I CAN PLAY MY PART...
These images give us another dimension to two men and their mission to show us what ought to be: two young African American women growing up a hundred years apart but in a world still latent with hostility to African Americans and to women. In our protracted struggle for justice and equality for all, we are reliant on freedom fighters, statesmen, and artists to force us to reflect on the world as it is.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the billions of people using camera-equipped smartphones, DSLRs, and professional camera and film equipment to rise to the tradition of photography as the great democratic art in the way Frederick Douglass and Devin Allen have. Perhaps it’s okay for prophets and pedestrians to use photography in their own ways. Perhaps there is sentimental value to a selfie with puppy ears or a Snapchat story about a day at the spa.
But perhaps it’s also fair that for every selfie we take, for every Instagram photo we like, or Snapchat user we follow we also ask ourselves: Are we, the only picture-making animals in the world, in a time with more picture-making tools than ever, living up to our potential?