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Baltimore: Freddie Gray

 

This past weekend I headed up to Baltimore to photograph the protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray. It was, as to be expected, a media frenzy. As is often with these types of tragedies, a wide range of spectators and participators showed up to what was the epicenter of Monday’s unrest. The corner of West North and Pennsylvania has become a hotspot for marches, television crews, countless law enforcement (local, regional, National Guard), journalists, local and national leaders, outsiders drawn to the chaos, and those simply trying to keep their daily routine.

Most people were there to protest Gray’s death or celebrate the city charging the six Baltimore police officers with various counts of legal action. Cameras were on, including mine, all trying to capture the feeling of what was unfolding in a part of Baltimore most outsiders, and even some city residents, have never been to before. Did the people who were there carrying signs and blocking traffic act so because the media was present? Possibly. Does that make their chants, emotions, or acknowledging the cameras any less authentic? I’d argue no. Just being there as a witness instantly changes the situation.

Under the lens of documentary photography it is important not to get caught up in the fever of the situation. And yet, the concept of journalistic objectivity is never fully possible. Treating people simply as subjects rules out the chance to make advances towards creating engaging work. Losing oneself to other people’s emotions is dangerous. Knowing why you are there to document is vital. I spent a good part of Friday watching the ebb and flow of the crowd. Almost everyone I interacted with I tried to do so with a smile or at the least direct eye-contact. True, the situation like the one in West Baltimore can change at any minute. Balancing being aware of the mood of all those present with trying to focus on capturing the moment is a challenge.

Past the soundbites, images and words is a part of Baltimore that will require a lot of time, attention and money to repair. Damages from 1968 riot remain. People who can work, and can find jobs, are trying to make ends meet. Others struggle with the uphill battle of addiction. Law enforcement walk the delicate line between protector and occupier. Pride in the neighborhood is strong. Self-organized volunteers are feeding crowds, protecting the police from violence, and cleaning up the streets.  As one resident I talked to said, “If we think you are coming here to hurt us we are going to get angry, but if you are friendly we’ll treat you with respect.”

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