Summer of the gun: Photog goes inside Baltimore violence

\'A neighbor in the 200 block of Diener Place refuses to come out of the apartment complex until the police are gone,\' Giordano writes in Baltimore City Paper. \'Residents in high violence areas are often reluctant to talk to police or the media for fear of reprisal.\' (Courtesy of J.M. Giordano)

WASHINGTON – Baltimore is under the gun. Plagued by some of the worst violence in recent years, Charm City’s homicide rate is steadily climbing after a spate of summertime killings.

Since the beginning of 2013, 150 people have been killed, The Baltimore Sun reports. Gun violence accounts for the vast majority of these deaths, though stabbings and blunt force are also to blame.

The most recent victim is 27-year-old Brandon D. Thompson, whose body was found Sunday at 4 p.m. in Liberty Heights. The night before, 15-year-old Deshaun Jones was killed in Franklin Square.

Photographer J.M. Giordano has visited most of these crime scenes since late June. Armed with nothing but a Nikon camera, Giordano uses Twitter and a police scanner smartphone app to learn about the latest killings. He races to each one night after night, meeting neighbors, families and friends of the victims and telling their stories through his series “Summer of the Gun,” which appears weekly in the Baltimore City Paper.

Giordano’s affable personality and intimate knowledge of Baltimore — his father is a retired city police officer — grant him access to the most emotional of scenes, he says.

“I didn’t want to do the usual show up at the scene and take a photo of the cross street, take a photo of the flashing lights,” he says. “I wanted to get to know the people behind the scenes.”

Giordano remembers his mother sending him out to investigate disturbances in their neighborhood when he was just a child. If something was happening in their building, Giordano became a little spy for his mom. This gregariousness has helped him gain the trust of people who generally don’t trust police officers or other members of the media, he says.

“They don’t see me as an outsider,” he says.

On one occasion, a woman invited him to shoot photos from inside her home after someone was shot in the street. At another crime scene, the victim’s family friend allowed him to photograph her crying, and then later invited him to the funeral house to take more pictures.

Despite being welcomed by some people, Giordano’s life has also been threatened on several occassions. While shooting in Greek Town, a group of men threatened to kick in his head or shoot him if he didn’t stop snapping away. They even escorted him to his car to make sure that he left.

This kind of response reminds Giordano that the conflicts brewing in Baltimore are no less significant than those happening in other countries, he says.

“Photojournalism begins in your backyard,” he says. “Instead of going abroad … I thought it would be important to photograph a conflict here in my own city.”

Giordano’s work has been called haunting and atmospheric. With his signature play on shadows and light, the photos evoke a sense of loss, pain and transition. The entire series is shot in black and white, an homage to “old school photojournalism” where the audience is forced to focus on the subject, rather than outside elements.

“I try to use light and shadows to communicate that sense of dread,” he says.

His portraits of victim’s family and friends use that same concept to draw in the viewer. There is no backdrop or background to distract from whatever the subject is feeling. Whether it’s a woman holding a photo of her dead brother or a sermonizing preacher, the outside observer has nowhere to look but straight ahead.

“I want to challenge people with these photos,” he says. “I want to humanize these people.”

Click through the gallery to see more from “Summer of the Gun.”

Giordano’s work can also be seen online at the Baltimore City Paper. They will be on exhibit in December. Visit his professional website for more information.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.

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