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Straight outta Baltimore: Student photographer captures the lost dreams of her city

A memorial to Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Image via AP Photo/Steve Ruark.

The American city of Baltimore is a city of failed politics and policies, with scarce resources and budget deficits causing crucial services from being implemented there.

The above is official jargon – but translated to real facts on the ground, they mean Baltimore is a city ridden with abject poverty, drugs, crime, and violence. And the consequences of these are damning, not least for its people.

“Shootings left and right, shootings left and right. Stabbings,” was how one resident described his neighbourhood.

In 2016, there were 318 homicides in the city of Baltimore – that’s nearly one homicide per day in a year.

And each death represented more than just a number in official statistics – it was someone’s son who liked to joke around and play high school football, or a Morgan State University student who was active in church and had ambitions to be a detective.

Who they were and the legacy they left behind is the subject of student photographer, Amy Berbert’s latest class project/mission.

The senior at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) started taking photos last year at different crime scenes in the city on the anniversary of its homicide, down to the minute.

When she showed her work at Rockville, an area wealthier than Baltimore City, “People didn’t realize what the issue was. Rockville is a much wealthier area than Baltimore City and people were shocked and they had never been confronted with the issue in such a personal way before,” she said to ABC News.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BP_sOJnjgPU

Her series, titled “Stains on the Sidewalk”, is also posted on Instagram and Facebook.

The Instagram account describes it as “An Exploration of Homicide in Baltimore City. Same Day. Same Time. Same Place. One Year Later.”

The UMBC senior told the Baltimore Sun that she wanted to give the victims the legacy that they deserve. Someone had told Berbert that after a crime is reported, the emergency response team will take the body away and hose the entire sidewalk clean.

“And that’s the whole legacy of that person.”

“Stains on the Sidewalk” wants us and the city to remember them and give them “more a legacy than just the blood stains that are left on the sidewalk and washed away”.

The photos paint the tragedy, calls for change

One poignant photo in the series showed a black car parked in front of a white residential house on a snowy night.

In every Instagram post, Berbert lists the victim’s name, age, as well as the homicide’s date, time, and location. For this photo, the accompanying caption was:

 “#5 Brian Tabb, 24 y/o
January 7, 2016 • 7:34pm
5900 block of Winthrope Avenue”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BO_NdltDb_C

More details for each photo are posted on the accompanying Facebook page. And for this particular shot, the story was as follows:

Tabb was shot and killed while sitting in a car with two other people when a gunman approached the vehicle and opened fire.”

With its moody colours and composition, Berbert’s photos evoke a sense of eeriness, the desolation of these people’s everyday locations bereft of its residents and most of all, the painful loss of it all.

But Berbert is committed to tell their story through her lens, even if revisiting the scenes and their chilling events become difficult for her, especially when it’s “a young kid around my age or a teenager who just got stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

This year, Baltimore continues to record historic homicide numbers after 2015 (344 homicides) and 2016 (318 homicides), its deadliest and second deadliest years respectively.

In the first 27 days of 2017 alone, 28 homicides have been recorded, prompting some to say 2017 will now surpass the past two bloody years.

https://www.facebook.com/stainsonthesidewalk/photos/a.232126287214648.1073741828.227340101026600/239375826489694/?type=3&theater

With such rates, Berbert’s family and teacher are worried for her safety, but they understand her purpose.

“I thought about it for a long time before telling my parents. They obviously were not thrilled with the idea. They’ve come around since then,” Berbert said.

Her professor, Lynn Cazabon, says she admires what her student is doing.

“She’s brave. I think she’s done a lot of this on her own at two in the morning or whatever. She’s committed,” Cazabon said.

Berbert plans on taking photos after she graduates in May 25, all the way until the end of 2017. Incidentally, her graduation day is the day when the most homicides happened in one day for 2016.

But she and other city residents are hoping that such days of record-breaking homicide numbers will soon be a thing of past.

Since her project was featured in the Baltimore Sun, many have followed her social media accounts and praised how the student is paying tribute to the victims through her artistic shots.

@sperkin7 thanked Berbert on Instagram for her “Amazing project/photography concept and some unbelievable photos. Thanks for all you do👍”.

Another user, @mcnaughtoneriin foresees the potential of Berbert’s work to bring better days to Baltimore: “I hope this brings change to our city, WE NEED CHANGE!!!!! These senseless killings need to cease! #makebaltimoregreatagain #godblessbaltimore #stopthekilling“.

“I want to give them more of a legacy than just a couple of lines in an article,” Berbert said. She hopes the message to stop the violence will resonate in the city and beyond.

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