'Stains On The Sidewalk': Photographer Remembers Year Of Murders In Baltimore | KUOW News and Information

'Stains On The Sidewalk': Photographer Remembers Year Of Murders In Baltimore

Jul 13, 2017

In American cities, the murder rate has kept rising over the last couple of years. One of the most violent cities in the U.S. is Baltimore.

That's where 22-year-old photographer Amy Berbert lives. She's been documenting every murder that took place in Baltimore in 2016. The city has more than twice as many homicides per capita as Chicago.

"Same place, same time, same day, one year later," Berbert says about her project, in which she captures the site of each homicide. Each image goes on social media, where she runs the account, Remembering the Stains on the Sidewalk, on Instagram and Facebook.

"And for me that's the biggest piece is that I have to plan my life, around these people's death," she says. "I'm missing my cousin's wedding, but these people will never be able to go to another wedding again. So it's a small sacrifice considering this 318 people will never see these opportunities again."

She took the first photo on Jan. 1, 2016, and she will take the last one on New Year's Eve. The project often takes her into sketchy neighborhoods in the middle of the night.

Berbert never includes people in the photographs because she says she's documenting a loss of life – an absence.

On this day, she's documenting the scene of a murder that happened a little past noon in a Baltimore neighborhood called Sandtown-Winchester.

When Berbert actually takes the photograph at 12:30, it feels almost anticlimactic. This is the moment one year ago that a man was shot and killed where we're standing.

This is photograph No. 131 in the project. But of course, the man who died on this corner a year ago is not just a number. His name was Donzell Canada, and he was 29 years old when he was killed. His murder remains unsolved.

"When I met him, he used to be right here on this corner. They called him Zelly at that time," says pastor Rodney Hudson of Ames Memorial United Methodist Church.

On this swampy day in Baltimore, Hudson is wearing a button-up shirt with a bow tie and a crucifix around his neck. The window box air conditioner in his office is working overtime.

He says Donzell Canada, or Zelly, was friends with Freddie Gray — the man who died in police custody two years ago, leading to protests in Baltimore.

"They were young guys just coming up, just trying to earn a little living, doing street pharmaceuticals as we call it," Hudson says, referring to the sale of prescription pills on the street.

He says they ended up in that situation because they had no other choice.

"When there are no jobs, and when your parents are having to depend on you to become an income maker, it becomes a way of life," Hudson says. "And I believe deep in my heart that if they had another choice, that this would not have been their desired life. But this is all they knew. All they knew was killing. All they knew was drug addiction."

Hudson met these guys when he arrived at the church nine years ago.

Canada was 20 years old then. Over time he earned their trust, and he often invited them to play basketball with them on a nearby court.

He seems to know everyone in this neighborhood — from the old folks sitting in the shade to the young men slouching on the street corners, and the kids playing on the basketball court.

Hudson says he cares about these kids "because in order to save the community, you got to start one person at a time."

But he wishes there were better infrastructure, opportunities and activities for these kids, and jobs for their parents.

Already this year, more than 180 people have been killed in Baltimore.

Berbert says as a photographer, she can use her art to make connections between the powerful and powerless.

"So if art can look at this group of people that's hurting and help tell their story or at least give them a platform to tell their story for themselves," she says, "the politicians, the policymakers, all of the people that can make a difference, can really understand what the issue is."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In American cities, the murder rate has been going up the last couple of years. One of the most violent cities in the U.S. is Baltimore. It has more than twice as many homicides per capita as Chicago.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I recently went to Baltimore to meet a photographer named Amy Berbert. She's 22 years old, and this year she's documenting the site of every murder that took place in the city during 2016.

AMY BERBERT: Same place, same time, same day, one year later. And for me, that's the biggest piece - is that I have to plan my life around these people's death. I'm missing my cousin's wedding. But these people will never be able to go to another wedding again. So it's a small sacrifice considering this 318 people will never see these opportunities again.

SHAPIRO: She took the first photo for this project on January 1. She'll take the last one on New Year's Eve. Each image goes on social media where she runs the account Remembering the Stains on the Sidewalk. The project often takes her into sketchy neighborhoods in the middle of the night. On this day she's documenting the scene of a murder that happened a little past noon in a Baltimore neighborhood called Sandtown-Winchester. We drive there from her apartment.

On the corner there's a mural of bare feet treading on roses and another one across the street that says, I rise, I rise, I rise. But on either side of it all the houses are boarded up. There's a liquor store on the corner with a couple people just loitering outside.

BERBERT: The crime scene was right there. So I think that light post with that stuff - you can see its old balloon ribbons - I think that's really from a year ago.

SHAPIRO: For this project, Berbert never includes people in the photographs. She says that's because she's documenting the loss of life and absence. On this day, a little boy and girl are playing cards on the steps of a row house right by where the murder happened a year ago. As we step out of the car, Berbert points out a police helicopter overhead.

A police officer's pulling up in front of about a half dozen guys hanging out on the corner.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Hey, someone called. Someone called.

SHAPIRO: The police officer is saying, hey, someone called, someone called, and the guys are just scattering.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Appreciate it, gentlemen. Afternoon, folks. Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: Hey there.

When Amy actually takes the photograph at 12:30, it feels almost anticlimactic.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER)

SHAPIRO: This is the moment one year ago that a man was shot and killed where we're standing. As we walk away, a guy shouts at her to stop taking photos.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).

BERBERT: Sorry, what's that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You've got people all in your picture. You didn't ask...

BERBERT: Oh, no, I - they're not in the picture.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They is. I just watched the whole lens. It looked a whole lot...

BERBERT: You want to see the picture?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No, I don't.

SHAPIRO: The guy walks away and we get back in the car. This is photograph number 131 in the project. Of course, the man who died on this corner a year ago is not just a number. His name was Donzell Canada. His murder remains unsolved. And he was 29 years old.

RODNEY HUDSON: When I met him he used to be right here on this corner. They called him Zelly at that time.

SHAPIRO: Zelly?

HUDSON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: This is pastor Rodney Hudson. He wears a button-up shirt with a bow tie and a crucifix around his neck. On this swampy day we're in his office at the Ames Memorial United Methodist Church in Baltimore. The window box air conditioner is working overtime. He says Donzell Canada, or Zelly, was friends with Freddie Gray, the man who died in police custody two years ago, leading to protests in Baltimore.

HUDSON: They were young guys just coming up, just trying to earn a little living, doing street pharmaceuticals, as we call it.

SHAPIRO: When you say street pharmaceuticals, are we talking about, like, prescription pills or weed or coke or what?

HUDSON: Any kind of pill that you want you can find it right here. We can go right down the street. And that's what they were doing.

SHAPIRO: Do you know how he wound up in that situation?

HUDSON: When there are no jobs and when your parents are having to depend on you to become an income maker, it becomes a way of life. And I believe deep in my heart that if they had another choice that this would not have been the desired life. But this is all they knew. All they knew were killing. All they knew was drug addiction.

SHAPIRO: He met these guys when he arrived at the church nine years ago. Donzell Canada was 20 years old then. Over time, he earned their trust, and he invited them to play basketball with him on a nearby court. We head out into the heat to take a look.

HUDSON: Excuse me, my brothers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How you doing there, sir?

HUDSON: How y'all feeling?

(CROSSTALK)

HUDSON: How you feeling? All right.

SHAPIRO: Pastor Hudson seems to know everyone in this neighborhood, from the old folks sitting in the shade to the young men slouching on street corners and the kids playing on the basketball court.

HUDSON: This is where he'd be listening to his music, sitting on the steps.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine somebody saying these kids are punks. They're dealers. Why invest your time and energy in them?

HUDSON: Because in order to save the community, you got to start one person at a time.

SHAPIRO: There are about 10 kids at the basketball court playing now. Do you look at those kids and wonder which one of them is going to grow up and get a good job, which one of them is going to get sucked in by the streets?

HUDSON: Every day.

SHAPIRO: He wishes there were better infrastructure, opportunities, activities for these kids and jobs for their parents. Already this year, more than 180 people have been killed in Baltimore. That means things in the city are getting worse, not better. Politicians, lawyers and police have an obvious role to play here. At Amy Berbert's apartment, I asked her what she thinks artists can do. She told me a photographer like her can make connections between the powerful and the powerless.

BERBERT: So if art can look at this group of people that's hurting and help tell their story or at least give them a platform to tell their story for themselves, the politicians, the policymakers, all of the people that can make a difference can really understand what the issue is.

SHAPIRO: Her images are on Facebook and Instagram with the tag #stainsonthesidewalk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.