Editor’s Note: Find the collection of coronavirus coverage on BlackLove.com here.
From Beyoncé and Missy Elliott to Angela Bassett, Usher, and the legendary Chaka Khan, Derek Blanks‘ cutting-edge and futuristic imagery has been an industry staple for more than a decade. A master behind the lens, his work has appeared in major campaigns for both print and television media. As a visionary, his primary focus is to create art that goes beyond and propels the typical status-quo. Because of his career and undeniable success drive, it requires the 42-year-old to travel extensively to capture the essence of his creative subjects perfectly.
However, on a recent work trip to Los Angeles, the unimaginable occurred when the acclaimed celebrity photographer and director contracted COVID-19. During this time, the harsh reality of the virus was still unclear. But in retrospect, Blanks wishes he would’ve done things quite differently to avoid the pain and future uncertainty caused by coronavirus.
“It’s so surreal because when I went to the hospital, it was deserted and the lights were off. The first thing they asked me was, ‘Do you have a will and testament?’ And I’m like, ‘Wow!’ That’s when I realized it’s possible I may not come out of there [the hospital].”
I would have made sure I was more serious about the severity of the situation.
With increasing cases by the day and the disproportionate effects in the Black community, Derek Blanks offers his story as a cautionary tale, especially for our community. Although several states are beginning to resume business, as usual, his personal account is an all too familiar recollection of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, “I would have made sure I was more serious about the severity of the situation.”
BlackLove.com caught up with the Mississippi native about recognizing early signs and symptoms, why it’s safer to stay home, the importance of taking necessary preventive measures, and how the creative community is managing the aftermath of the pandemic.
BlackLove.com: Can you walk me through your diagnosis process?
Derek Blanks:I went on a trip to Los Angeles, and when I arrived back in Atlanta, I was fine for the week. About five days later, I had a splitting headache, and my eyelids were swollen. Initially, I believed it was allergies because, from my understanding, the symptoms for the virus were a dry cough. I didn’t see anything about any allergies or reactions.
Then I had a fever, but I took some Tylenol for it, and everything was okay. All of a sudden, three hours later, it was back, and now I had chills. At that point, my wife told me I needed to get out of our room. So, I went into the other room, and thank God I did, because that would be a nightmare with her or my son getting it.
After that, I was honestly still in denial. I just kept going on, feeling fatigued because I wasn’t coughing, had shortness of breath, or any mucus. I continued taking Zyrtec to see if I could knock this out. It didn’t go away. Now that I look back, I did have a few minor body aches, but it wasn’t anything excessive. I thought maybe it was from working out.
After five days of having a fever, I called the hotline, which tells you to stay at home. I called twice, and I spoke with someone who said: “Well, if this is manageable, stay at home and don’t come out.” But my cousin urged me to go to the ER. Once I arrived, the hospital staff gave me a few chest X-rays, and when the doctor came in, he told me I had pneumonia.
I instantly asked, “Oh, how did I get pneumonia?” and he stated it’s typically from coronavirus. The test came back, but I already knew at that point when they said I had pneumonia and my fever wouldn’t break, that I had coronavirus. And it was confirmed two days later.
BL.com: Since you live in Georgia and it is one of the many states that have reopened, what advice would you give to others, on why it’s safer to stay at home?
DB: Including myself, I feel we as a people, and in general, really aren’t taking this seriously enough. Because we may feel fine and we’re oblivious to the people around us. For instance, if I was not doing what I was supposed to, and I went to the grocery store after I was released from the hospital, without a mask, I could have infected so many people right then and there. This is life and death, and you can get sick just from being beside somebody, where they may pass it to you.
Since we don’t know much about the virus, everyone should play it safe and act with precaution not just for yourself but the safety of others. I know for a fact if we get permission to do what we want and open businesses, it’s going to be worse because I see all types of things when I go to the grocery store. For instance, people are not staying six feet away, or improperly wearing masks, underneath their nose where the nose is exposed.
BL.com: What do you wish others knew about COVID-19 that hasn’t been stated or is being swept under the rug?
DB:At some point, unfortunately, when things don’t change, we have to change, and we have to look out for ourselves. Which means we may need to educate ourselves. We already know the virus is affecting African-Americans with the most significant impacts and deaths. We have many underlying health complications, such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. I think we can take this time to try and build up our immune systems with exercise and diet.
I already knew at that point when they said I had pneumonia and my fever wouldn’t break, that I had coronavirus. And it was confirmed two days later.
As a people, we know life isn’t fair. I’ve been taught as a young Black man; we always have to work harder than our counterparts to excel or be seen in the light that we feel. So there are things that we need to prepare our body spiritually, mentally, and physically for this virus. Instead of sitting back while we’re in quarantine, we should be doing things to help prevent situations if we were to contract the disease personally. Those are my beliefs.
BL.com: What is your biggest takeaway from this experience?
DB:I’m a workaholic, so I realized you can still accomplish things you need on a smaller scale. When this is all over, the crews and the scale of things are going to be a lot smaller. All that stuff adds up financially, and it doesn’t help situations where you need to have a minimal crew to prevent the spread of the virus. I may take that into my future thinking when we’re back to normal.
BL.com: How are you and your family right now, making the most of this time in quarantine?
DB:We are all very dependent on cell phones and iPads, but this time has brought us closer together, I believe. Even during dinnertime, it has taught us ways to be more observant. And it made each of us step-up on house chores and cleaning.
BL.com: The pandemic has hit the creative community hard with everything at a standstill. How have you pivoted to manage the impact?
DB: I’ve told my assistants throughout my entire career, the more you know, the more valuable you are. I can’t stress that enough. By the grace of God, I’ve been able to continue to work. Of course, the revenue may not be coming in as desired, but I’m still working. It is because of the resources, talent, and expertise I have in my field. My workload has increased because I’ve always pushed myself to know how to retouch, complete post-production, graphic design, and utilize other skill sets. Whatever your field is, make sure you’re well-versed, so in times of need, you will be able to push through.
BL.com: When this is all over, who are two people you want to work with or top projects you’re like, “We have to make this happen.”
DB:I’m still going to put Oprah on my list. With both of us being from Mississippi, there is no reason why we shouldn’t have worked together. As far as what she’s doing for the African-American community and the virus is concerned, I feel it is imperative and very needed. I honor her for that.
I would still like to develop our grant to explore filmmaking. It made me realize that even this situation or the content on television could be more creative, tailored more to what’s going on.