A Country in Quarantine: Photographs From a COVID Road Trip
When Los Angeles–based photographer Brian Bowen Smith started his road trip across America in the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, he expected to be gone for two weeks. The end result was three times that long.
“We were not expecting so many people to respond and want to be involved,” Smith said, referring to his BBS Drivebys series. “This altered our path immensely and took over six weeks and 11,000 miles.”
The photographs, which Smith shot through the window of his vintage Ford pickup truck, originated from a photo shoot with his family friend. “I drove into her driveway and photographed her,” Smith said. “When I showed my wife, she loved it and said I should continue to do more.”
Smith’s inbox was flooded with messages from people expressing interest in participating in the project, but he didn’t want to shoot just anybody—there needed to be meaning behind each image. From a mask-clad Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas to a cowboy in Colorado, Smith’s subjects hailed from vastly different communities and backgrounds. However, there was still a common thread between them.
“Everyone I spoke to seemed to be in the same boat. They are scared and frustrated,” Smith said. “Most just want to get back to their normal life.”
With no real day-to-day plan, the trip could be stressful. Spur-of-the-moment decisions were key, but Smith’s word of advice to those thinking about a road trip of their own? Get your vehicle inspected ahead of time.
“Let’s just say I learned a lot about mechanics on this trip.”
Whether it was the 18-hour drive from New Jersey to South Dakota (the most extensive leg of Smith’s trip) or shedding tears while driving through the Rocky Mountains, Smith said traveling across the country for the series was one of the most amazing experiences he’s ever had—but heartbreaking too.
“My biggest hope, like everyone else’s, is that I hope we can recover. I have seen so many mom-and-pop businesses boarded up like they were never coming back,” Smith said. “For many of these small businesses, life as they knew it is over. Even my own life and business will be different.”
Smith recognizes the traditional American road trip isn’t an option for most people this summer, but his socially distanced photographs serve as a reminder of the humanity that still exists in the country—even in the midst of seemingly endless chaos.
“It definitely changed the way that I look at life now,” Smith said. “Who knows, maybe the world can be a better place when this is all over. Then again…maybe not. But I sure hope so.”