Photo of J.M. Giordano by Sean Scheidt. All other photographs by J.M. Giordano and used with his permission.
“They literally rolled over me; just left me there.” That was what J.M. Giordano told me last July when I asked him about an incident in late April 2015 that received international coverage, where he was knocked to the ground by a group of Baltimore police while trying to photograph the protests and unrest that had been going on since the late afternoon.
Earlier in the night, he had driven into West Baltimore with Sait Serkan Gurbuz, a Reuters photographer; and Baynard Woods, a journalist who worked together with Giordano at City Paper. They stayed close together until they found themselves between a group of twenty or thirty protestors and a group of sixty or seventy police, who, as they charged at the protestors, collided with the two photographers. The police arrested Gurbuz and almost arrested Giordano until Woods intervened, shouting, “He’s a photographer! He’s press!” until they relented.
Giordano kept shooting for a while, then got home and fell asleep. The video of his confrontation with the police, which Woods had filmed on his phone, had already gone viral. He became inundated with emails and phone calls from media outlets around the country and the world, from Slate to the Daily Mail. But, in true photojournalist fashion, he went right back to work the next day, and implored people to stay focussed on the injustices that led to the unrest in the first place.
Bringing people’s attention to things that might have gone ignored was what drew Giordano to photojournalism in the first place. He had first worked in the style in high school and then for three years in the Army, which he joined after one year at CCBC Essex. After leaving the Army, he lived in Europe for six years. When he returned to America, he started writing for the Dundalk Eagle and the now-defunct Urbanite and shooting professionally, mainly fashion and various kinds of commercial and advertising work. His photographs appeared in magazines like i-D, and he started to develop relationships with regular ad clients. Yet when Giordano was hired by the Baltimore City Paper in 2013, he transitioned back to photojournalism. “It has more of an immediate effect on people,” he said, contrasting it with the “cotton candy” of some of his earlier commercial work. He gave me an example.
In the summer of 2014, a number of homeless people had started living under an I-83 overpass at Madison Avenue and Fallsway, anywhere from fifteen to twenty at a given time. The residents included a young man who had been disowned after coming out to his parents, a former model who had been homeless for three years, and a man with advanced colon cancer. The city government, Giordano told me, paid no attention to their situation until City Paper published “Camp 83” in early September, which he wrote and photographed. The response was enormous and immediate; two months later, workers from the city government helped the residents dismantle the encampment and move into a motel in nearby Reisterstown.
“Camp 83” was 2014’s “big story,” Giordano told me, explaining he tries to do one such story per year. Last year, he wrote about and photographed homeless teenagers; his first big story, in 2013, was a series about Baltimore homicides titled “Summer of the Gun,” which attracted the attention of Al-Jazeera America. He usually develops these stories by first thinking of general ideas, which he writes on a large sheet of paper hanging on a wall in his office. (This is a deliberate choice: he has to look at the sheet of paper every day, unlike a Google Doc, which would just be “another fucking tab.”)
Giordano’s photojournalism and documentary portraiture have also recently appeared in The Guardian and GQ, among others, and though City Paper closes soon, his focus remains in Baltimore. There is no shortage of subjects, he said; he never feels the need to go to exotic places in search of material, and added that aspiring photojournalists should not think that those are the only places that make for compelling journalism.
“You don’t have to go to war anymore,” he said, when there’s so much going on at home.