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

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 Instagramand 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.

Baltimore-based artist Amy Berbert photographs a scene where someone was killed one year ago, as part of her series <em>Stains on the Sidewalk.</em>
Ari Shapiro / NPR
Baltimore-based artist Amy Berbert photographs a scene where someone was killed one year ago, as part of her series Stains on the Sidewalk.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.