Devin Allen, a 26-year-old amateur photographer from Baltimore, Maryland woke up to a surprise on Twitter last Thursday, April 28. When he checked his feed, Devin discovered that TIME had used one of his many photographs from the city's Freddie Gray protests for its cover. His response? Shock.
"I'm still speechless about it," Allen told MTV News Monday (May 4). "It's still surreal to me. I still can't believe it happened. I didn't expect this to happen. It changed my life dramatically."
It was surprising because Allen, a self-taught photographer who started shooting in 2013, never planned to nab a TIME cover, an honor many photographers only dream of. "When I took the picture, I was just documenting my city," he said. "I knew that the news was only going to depict mostly the negative.
"I had about 10,000 followers on Instagram and about 5,000 on Twitter," he continued. "So, I was like, 'I'ma just promote what I see, whether bad, good.' So, I took the pictures, posted them and a couple pictures went viral."
Rihanna, DJ Drama, and King Los were among those who posted Allen's black and white photographs on social media as Baltimore's unrest unfolded. Eventually, TIME took notice. After the cover dropped, Beyoncè, Erykah Badu and SZA shared his work on their own social media platforms. The response was overwhelming for Allen.
"I was like, 'Wow. Beyoncè, though?' It's Beyoncè," he said. "I'm also a big fan of SZA and Erykah Badu. I grew up on Erykah Badu. Love her. When she tweeted my cover, that meant so much. Then SZA tweeted it. I'm a big fan. These are people that I'm fans of... It brought tears to my eyes."
Devin Allen's experience in Baltimore these last two weeks is compelling; at times heartbreaking, and other times inspiring. He's gone through quite a journey with his camera. And after our interview, here's a little more about the amateur photographer whose photographs helped bring light to the unrest in his beloved city.
How Baltimore Unrest Unfolded
"When I first started coming out, there were just peaceful protests... Then, on Saturday (April 25), when I took the picture that's on TIME's cover, there was a huge rally. It was about 2,000 people. That went sour due to racial slurs that were being thrown at protestors. I witnessed trash being thrown, windows being busted, random people being beat up, people who was trying to run the protestors out was gettin' their tires slashed, police was getting hit with stuff, people were getting maced, sprayed with tear gas. That was just Saturday (Apr. 25).
"Monday was a whole 'nother ball game. That was crazy. I actually didn't stay out there too long. It got a little bit too crazy. The young guys was basically lootin', rockin' police in the head with rocks. It was crazy. I was only out there for a little bit. I wasn't trying to get knocked out or have my camera broken. Then, I didn't want to get locked up, either. TIME told me that if I would have gotten locked up protesting, it would have affected what I was doing. I tried to avoid that."
He Experienced Racism While Documenting The Protests
"What sparked that [cover] picture, before it was even taken, Orioles fans from the baseball game were throwing racial slurs to the younger guys. The younger guys started throwing stuff. Then, they started fighting.
"They was calling us monkeys-- excuse my French-- n---ers. People that was with us were called monkey-lovers, n---er-lovers. I'm 26-years-old. I know I'm not those things. I can handle that. But the young guys can't. So, these guys who were 15, 16, 17, 18, just went on a warpath. So, I followed them. They was beating up random people on the street... They was just runnin' up. It didn't even matter. If you was white, you was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But at the same time, I watched a lot of protestors save a lot of people in the mix."
The Cover Story Subject - What Happened To Him?
"The guy with the bandana around his face, basically he ran down and threw something. Once he threw something, the sergeant gave [officers] the right to go in. So, they took off. I snapped the picture. I have WiFi on my camera so I was thinking, ‘I have enough time to send this picture to my phone and tweet it.’ When I tweeted it, by the time I tweeted the picture and posted it, I looked up and the police was right in front of my face. They actually almost ran me over but they didn’t. They actually helped me. They helped push me over this railing. That’s how I got away.
"The guy, people always ask me if he got caught. When he ran, he kept going. Protestors stepped up and met the police in the middle so the rioters with the protestors clashed with the police in the middle. They were just at a standstill. But the guy, he actually got away. He was gone."
Some Hope Emerged Despite The Tragedies
"I've seen people get knocked out, but I've also seen people coming together. Black, white and different ethnic backgrounds, people were marching together for the same cause. It went from people trying to make it a racial thing to just evil versus good.
"I felt a lot of anger at first. I was angry, not just at the police, but at my people too, at some points because it's just sad to see my city burning like that. But I don't fault them. My city is poor. It's not easy here for a lot of people. There are blocks of houses that have been vacant for years. I felt some anger, but at the same time, I felt joy that our people came together. They're showing the riots over and over and over. That was just one day. We've been marching for like ten days - peacefully.
"I went from feeling anger to just being joyful, actually happy, because out of this bad thing that happened, my people have been together... all types of people, white, black, Mexican, people coming from other cities... It's been real beautiful... The battle is far from over. It's only the beginning, but I'm happy."
He Isn't Just A Photographer
"I work with people with intellectual disabilities and autism. I work with people who are in their early 20s. I have three guys that I work with. Photography is the passion. That's what I want to do, but I still have bills. I also like working with people with autism, though. I do like my job."
His Followers Have Called Him 'Kendrick Lamar With A Camera'
"People have called me Kendrick Lamar with a camera because of the messages that I'm sending. I hope this launches me to working with people that inspire me like Kendrick Lamar and artists such as that. I want to work with those guys, like J. Cole. Those guys inspire me through their music."
He Understands The Power Of Social Media
"I knew I could touch people... I know the power of social media. You know how you post those funny Vines and something goes viral? I seen it. So, I was like, 'Well, maybe I can touch people and shed some light on my city.' But I was just reaching my followers. I never expected this. But I know Instagram and Twitter played a big, big part... With social media, anyone can have a voice."
He Wants Focus To Remain On Baltimore
"This is not even about me. This about my city. Let these pictures go wherever they go. They'll land wherever they land. I put some on Instagram and Twitter and I used VSCO Cam for some... Each social media [platform] I used played a part in me spreading my message. I just never expected them to fall on TIME Magazine."