There was silence. 147 miles away from the nearest semblance of civilization. No phone service. Five miles off-road in a remote corner of Nevada called Amargosa Valley, my crew and I approached our location—a giant sand dune—in a Porsche Boxster. The silence of the arid, endless landscape was our sole companion on this sojourn into the wilderness. In the soundless air, I could hear myself exhale for the first time since the world fell apart.

A few months before, I sat enveloped in the din of a busy Manhattan coffee shop, planning what would become the biggest production of my career yet: a fashion editorial shot on location in the Mojave Desert. Weeks later, after COVID-19 was formally declared a pandemic, we forged ahead, determined that no matter what happened we would take whatever precautions necessary to see this photoshoot through. After countless hours, emails and many setbacks, we were at the eve of the shoot, confident and ready to produce something amazing.

Then I saw the video. I felt a familiar visceral rage, pain and hopelessness watching George Floyd’s death under Derek Chauvin’s knee. I woke up that night in a cold sweat, remembering what it was like in my hometown of Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. 

Reflecting on that time, I was troubled by the insubstantial change between now and five years past. On the eve of the photoshoot, bereft of energy to give to the world, I was at a loss for motivation and creativity.

Our first day on location was rife with setbacks. Producing a shoot in the desert is a difficult task, and our diminished crew size resulted in more work than hands. We returned to the hotels exhausted, knowing that we were carrying more than an extra set of responsibilities.

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The first photograph depicts our crew at the foot of the sand dunes preparing for the shoot. Photo Credit: Philip Harris (June 8, 2020). Amargosa Valley, Nevada, USA.

As a completely Black crew, we bore the burden of proving something to the world of fashion in this precious, fleeting moment of racial empathy. Having been given the opportunity, we had to prove what Black creatives have always sought to prove: that we belong and that our contributions are praiseworthy and important.

For our final day on location we took to the road, fighting sleep, yet determined. As we reached the sand dune, we piled into our main vehicle: a pickup truck. We had prepared as much as we could, but we could not have expected what happened next.

Amargosa Valley shares many of the characteristics of its better known, next-door neighbor, Death Valley. And in the silence and isolation of the Amargosa Valley, we found ourselves trapped, stuck in the sand a half-mile from our shoot location, with no refuge from the bitter climate for which the valley was named. If the heat had not been enough, there was also the unpredictable wind that blasted us with a torrent of jagged pebbles and coarse sand. We had begun to despair, feeling that maybe the universe did not want this to be.

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Shortly after wrapping the shoot, as we prepare to drive five miles back onto the main road. Photo Credit: Philip Harris (June 8, 2020). Amargosa Valley, Nevada, USA.

Thankfully, we were wrong. A quarter-mile away was the campsite of a kind stranger with a shovel and an ATV. We were able to make it to the foot of the dunes. 

Four hours later after wrapping the shoot, I looked toward the sunset thinking of what we had done. We had produced a fashion editorial in one of the most remote and inhospitable places in the world, in the middle of the worst health crisis in a generation, creating works for an industry that only now is beginning to warm up to the idea of Black creatives at the forefront. 

The invisible obstacles that Black and brown people face in creative spaces were manifested as a real, existential danger. The moments of defeat, the sensation of feeling minuscule and powerless while facing the enormity of the unforgiving, dangerous environment— each of these challenges required us to seek more than the circumstances had given us, and somehow, by God, we did it.

We had one last task to accomplish, which was to get home safely. As the rest of the country contended with curfews and lockdowns, we raced the approaching night. The sun was quickly setting behind the nearby mountains, a reminder that in a matter of minutes, we would be perilously lost. Yet, in that moment as a Black man, more than a hundred miles away from civilization in the windswept Nevada desert, I did not fear anything. I did not fear the wild animals, scorpions and creeping things that surrounded us, nor did I fear the setting sun. We had overcome, proud of what we had accomplished with our time in the desert. 

We turned onto the highway as nightfall approached and I couldn’t help but ponder the reality we were about to re-enter. Though in the morning we would be back to the realities of being Black in America, as we drove hours through complete darkness, in limbo, free of society, and far beyond the auspices of the police, we beat the odds and created something beautiful. 

To date, it was the safest I have ever felt in a car.