How a Baltimore photographer captured two sides of the city’s unrest

Select photos from both parts of the “Holding That Line’’ series by Nate Larson.
Select photos from both parts of the “Holding That Line’’ series by Nate Larson. –Nate Larson

Nate Larson, a photographer and professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, couldn’t go about business as usual while Baltimore was in a state of upheaval. Instead, he created and published a two-part photo essay called “Holding That Line’’ that puts faces to the abstract media coverage of the city’s unrest.

“Following the events of that Monday, I came to class with my students, and I couldn’t pretend that nothing was different, that nothing had changed,’’ Larson said. “I felt that things we were seeing in the media didn’t represent experiences in the city. So we talked about it and went out to photograph for ourselves.’’

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As they walked through the city — the campus is about 1.5 miles from the epicenter of the unrest in the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester — they encountered volunteers cleaning up the community. Larson said people were passing out registration forms to vote, others were shouting their own agendas, aided by megaphones.

“The story that we saw was the community was there responding, helping to clean things up, and we felt that this story wasn’t being told by the mass media. So we moved about photographing,’’ Larson said.

At the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues, a public library sits across from the CVS that burned on the first night of riots. Larson and his students continued photographing, moving freely between volunteers, peaceful protestors, and police.

Though the officers were simply observing when Larson arrived around 10 a.m., their numbers gradually grew to form a human barricade on the street sealing off North Avenue. Larson described the atmosphere as “tense,’’ and said that the police didn’t communicate what they were doing as far as he heard. They just cleared off the street and arranged a line of officers without any announcement as to why.

“It was really strange to me, because nothing was happening that required that level of police response,’’ Larson said. “It felt like an aggressive action. At the time there were also snipers setting up on the rooftop, and a police helicopter buzzing surprisingly close.’’

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This prompted Larson to begin photographing the officers in the line. He used his smartphone instead of his DSLR camera, because he felt that the officers might be more amenable to him taking their photo that way. There were 27 officers; Larson snapped a profile of each of them for his series “Holding That Line, Part One.’’

From Holding that Line, Part One: Police Line from North to South, on North Avenue at Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 2015 —Nate Larson

Around 1 p.m., class was nearly over, so Larson and his students headed back to campus. Later that evening, Larson returned on his own. In the time that he had been gone, a line of citizens had formed in front of the police wall.

“Something about this was very brave, very powerful, very human,’’ Larson said.

He requested their permission to photograph them and most said yes, so Larson posted the 22 profiles that he made in “Holding That Line, Part Two.’’

Larson said he gathered from talking to them that most were Baltimore citizens, and that they didn’t seem to know each other. The profiles capture the diversity of the participants, from a smiling young girl in braces, to an older man looking stonily away from the camera.

From “Holding That Line, Part Two: Citizen Protection Line’’ from North to South, on North Avenue at Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 2015 —Nate Larson

“They spontaneously felt the need to act as a buffer between a tense situation,’’ said Larson.

From his brief conversations, Larson was hesitant to describe the motivations of the volunteer wall.

“My sense was that they were afraid someone would throw a bottle at the police, and the police would use that as an excuse to hurt the crowd,’’ said Larson. “They were trying to keep things from taking off. To my knowledge, nothing happened.’’

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Larson said that the atmosphere shifted in the hours he had been on campus.

“When I came back that evening, there was a different kind of energy,’’ said Larson. “There was a marching band, some sort of dance contest, a Michael Jackson impersonator — I think the song might have been ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us,’ — peaceful protesters…. The atmosphere did not feel as charged when I went back the second time. People were there making their presence, their feelings known.’’

This time around, Larson took photos of the human barricade of volunteers with his DSLR. This enabled him to focus in on each individual in a way that he would have liked to do with the police.

“The project was about putting a face to the abstract media narrative,’’ said Larson. “Mostly people are speaking broadly about police officers at the scene. In using the shallow depth of field in the second set, I isolated the individual. I wanted to make a careful portrait of them as individuals.’’

Though Larson’s project attempts to show another perspective on the experiences in Baltimore, he said that they are just one point of view.

“As a professor at an art school, I’m coming from a position of privilege, and I don’t want to minimize that,’’ Larson said. “I’m an observer and am trying to be careful about my representation. It’s about them and not about me.’’

To view the entire photo essay, visit Larson’s website.

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