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Photographing Baltimore’s Murderous Summer

Photojournalist and photo editor J.M. Giordano has served in the Army, photographed a story on druids in the UK, worked in Prague, and been beaten...

Photojournalist and photo editor J.M. Giordano has served in the Army, photographed a story on druids in the UK, worked in Prague, and been beaten by the police while covering the Freddie Gray protests (he called it an “occupational hazard”). The Baltimore native returned to the U.S. following 9/11 and has built his career on photographing hyper-local stories for the Baltimore City Paper that are often neglected by the national and even bigger local news outlets. 

In the Summer of 2013, Giordano set out to cover a spurt in homicides in a tragic moment of Baltimore’s history. Five years later, he returned to the story to revisit some of the earlier subjects and celebrate how the community had worked towards reducing the violence. 

How did the original project, Summer of the Gun, come about in 2013?

After almost a decade of shooting fashion and commercial work, I came to the realization that that genre meant nothing. Like cotton candy. I decided to get back to my roots of photojournalism. Good photography is like a super power. One photo has the power to help people. I wanted to get back to that again. In 2013, homicides were tracking to be a three year high. It was a particularly hot summer and I decided to document what was going on in the streets.

Reverend Milton Williams of the New Life Evagelical Church lost a daughter to gun violence in Baltimore. He was nearby for the shooting at Preston and Milton avenues. July 22, 2013.

In the past, crime beat reporters might have simply shown up to document the scene, then filed their piece. You delved deeper by reaching out to the families and other members of the community. Can you speak your approach?

Yes, this was essential to the way I decided to cover the homicide epidemic in the city. There had to be crime scene photos, but I also wanted to talk to neighbors, relatives, and friends of those gunned down. I know a lot of people jump to the “well, they’re just drug dealers” narrative, but they’re humans who leave behind human things. You have to have compassion for those left behind. I tell students that I always get the name of the deceased before I talk to people. A name humanizes them. “How do you know _” is better than, “How do you know the victim.” It lead me to getting invited to shoot the funeral of a man named Davon. His shooting was all over the news, but I was the only press at the funeral.

“We miss him everyday, but we’re just glad justice was done,”–Deirdre McFadden, cousin of Davon Ockimey, in July 2018. Ockimey was gunned down in Baltimore’s violent Park Heights community in 2013. His shooter, Antonio Braxton who was 20 at the time, is serving a life sentence with 30 years suspened sentence. Photo by J.M. Giordano

We’ve spoken on the 10fps podcast about Daniel Berehulak’s photos from the Philippines – an incredible set of images, but also brutally violent and with discernible faces. How do you avoid turning your series into, if I can be crass, homicide porn?

It’s a FINE line. I mean, in Baltimore, you can’t walk up to a body and shoot. The cops won’t let you. They even moved the crime scenes further away the more I started showing up. There has to be some context. Some distance. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative with lighting, composition etc. I’m not about just showing up and shooting. Also, unlike Berehulak’s shots, no American publication would publish American bodies on American streets. It’s colonial and racist attitude towards homicide coverage. Although I have an issue with this opioid work, I think Nachtwey’s coverage of the Philippines was more complete. But both aren’t local. Now look at the way a local Filipino shoots the same subject.

Part of the project pays a bit of homage to Richard Avedon with stark portraits against white seamless, which I find really compelling. What was the thought behind these images vs the documentary and environmental portraits in the rest of the series?

Johnny Bryant lost both grandsons to gun violence.
Johnny Bryant lost both grandsons to gun violence. Photo by J.M. Giordano

I carried my white seamless in the car with me. I like the way that it takes the subject out of the environment and makes the viewer concentrate on them. I would interview them while shooting. People say that white backgrounds are cliche. That’s like saying a blank canvas is cliche. It’s not. It’s what is chosen to be put on it that is cliche.

A Baltimore Ceasefire volunteer encourages cars to honk their horns in support as they drive down Edmonson Avenue on Friday evening.

You returned to the project this year as Baltimore held a series of ceasefire events to combat the violence. How has your approach and/or visual aesthetic changed since 2013?

I’ve grown so much in the five years since SoG. I know many more people on the street and have gotten into a style of shooting. I think that black and white is the language of photojournalism. Color is fine if in context of the story, in my opinion. I’ve learned my my shots here don’t have the same impact in color.

Photojournalists are supposed to remain dispassionate about what they shoot, but we’re seeing more and more photographers use their images for advocacy or activism. Having covered the homicide problem, do you have an opinion on what needs to be done to alleviate/solve the problem? How do you want your photos to be used – i.e. strictly as news, or for something closer to advocacy?

I tell my students, 1) “don’t take sides, take photographs” and 2) “be a human first and photographer second” but in the current climate, it’s becoming harder and harder to remain dispassionate. On the homicide issue, I think that photographers need to show the human side of what happens during a homicide. There is no solution in my photos. I think how they see my photos should be up to the viewer. The point of covering the homicides, was to show the rest of the city what was going on. And when it was picked up by Al-Jazeera America, the rest of the country.

Homicide rates are a national issue, but homicide in Baltimore and its pernicious effect on the community is a hyper-local issue. Can you speak about the role community photojournalism plays in your city?

Photojournalism in Baltimore is split between the media, Baltimore Sun newspaper, news blogs, and TV and neighborhood documentation. We have a lot of incredible photographers of color who communicate through documenting their world and posting it on Insta and Snap. They are the real photojournalists in the city. I’m just an invited (I hope) guest.

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