The first images coming out of the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore last week were photographs by local professionals and amateurs, distributed across social media. The national media hadn’t yet arrived, and many of the images that predated that arrival show it. They don’t display the hallmarks of formal composition that consumers of national news photography usually expect — depth of field, specific focus, orderly composition with parallel shapes, and finely tuned color balance — and the general absence of those aesthetic hallmarks of most professional photojournalism can be jarring, can attest simultaneously to a heightened sense of immediacy and the uneasy unreality of aesthetic expectations denied.
Like citizen journalism, this kind of photography exists in a context that is economic and technological as well as aesthetic. Digital “prosumer” equipment and social media have enabled production and distribution of non-professional images (there are still barriers to entry, but they are lower than they once were). These images have also put a great deal of stress on professional photojournalism as an institution. Still, the distinction between professional and amateur persists aesthetically even as it grows hazier institutionally.
The viewer understands the amateur image as bearing witness, rather than as framing events. By contrast, it seems to need framing, like an exhibit in a trial. “Framing” has a revealing double meaning, referring to both form and function, both the element of craft and the element of interpretation. Although we think of professional photojournalists’ images as objective, such images necessarily offer interpretive ways into the events they depict as they select their subjects, their points of focus, their scope.
In this context, Time magazine’s choice of a photograph by Devin Allen — a 26-year-old West Baltimore native whose work sprang to national attention when Rihanna reposted one of his photos on Instagram — for last week’s cover speaks to a negotiation between these two modes of photojournalism. Allen’s Instagram feed is a display of crafted images shot on a digital SLR and uploaded to his phone all but entirely unedited. Many of them are candid portraits — intimate, empathic portrayals of protesters in action, their faces washed with emotion. Time chose a more classically photojournalistic image for its cover: a broader scale photograph that captures and distills a single moment of a newsworthy situation.
And this image does distill, with all the aesthetic authority of the professional. Its horizontals and verticals are sharp and clean, almost completely square with the frame. The protester in the foreground, caught mid-stride, cuts a diagonal through the corner of the field. That diagonal crosses the opposing one of the light rail tracks that run through the middle of the image, drawing a line between the running figure of an anonymous black man close to the camera and the horizontal rank of police officers in riot gear behind him that suggests pursuit and brings the man in the foreground and the group behind him into relation. It is the background that is in focus — the single protester in the foreground is a dark, kinetic blur, but behind him, Baltimore and its advancing police force stand crisp and clear.
The image directs its attention away from the individual black subject and towards the edifices of Baltimore: architecture, infrastructure, policing. It suggests a refusal of the kinds of news coverage that focus only on the dramatic images of a city burning, on the shattered window of a police car rather than the boarded-up windows of foreclosed row houses. And it also provides a striking visual representation of events, presenting the players and the scene with care and clarity, drawing them into a crafted formal relationship that makes the image visually compelling on its own merits.
In short, this image is the kind of image that professional photojournalism produces. It is framed and it frames; its composition asserts its authority, argues for the significance of the events it depicts, and offers a point of view on those events.
Nevertheless, it is produced by a non-professional — someone who, until Time presumably changed all that, had never been paid for his photography. That Cinderella story (and all the sociopolitical narratives it invokes) is the reason news outlets are covering the photographer as a story unto himself, foregrounding his amateurism even as that category grows difficult to define (one photography blog calls Allen a “so-called ‘amateur’”).
Time’s article on Allen’s cover image, which complements the spread on his photography, splits the difference. The headline calls him an “aspiring photographer.” The text refers to him, as an earlier Time piece on his Instagram images had, as an “amateur,” but also as someone who had “only aspired to be a professional photographer.” Despite the fact that the image itself bears the markers of professional craft, the piece stresses its producer as a participant and an insider, quoting him describing that as the police advanced he was “in the middle of it all.”
That participation, while it grants access, might also seem to compromise objectivity — because Allen is black, because he is from Baltimore, and because he is unapologetically speaking for the protesters, from among them. “I document while I protest,” he captioned a photograph of his own raised fist, the skin adorned with the symbol of a camera’s aperture setting.
In positioning Devin Allen and his images somewhere between the poles of professional and amateur, artist and witness, documentarian and advocate, Time seems to offer the narrative framework around Allen and his photograph to counterbalance the passion of his advocacy. But the inescapable fact is that the photograph on the cover of this week’s Time speaks for itself as much as it speaks for the Baltimore protesters.