Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Anthrax and Zapped Film -
Unintended Consequences

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The government's latest attempt to keep one step ahead of terrorists who use the mail to spread their evil may have a serious negative effect on the photographic film industry if some new anti-terror technologies are used nationwide.

How widespread the new anti-terror methods will be is unclear at this writing. For now, there is no need for photographers to panic. However, interviews with industry experts across the country – including some whose livelihoods may be directly affected by new government procedures – indicate a nervous hope that the Feds don't wind up creating unanticipated problems while fighting mail-borne anthrax from domestic or foreign sources.

The announcement by the United States Postal Service late last month that it will begin to irradiate mail with powerful beams of high-energy electrons – first at, but not necessarily limited to, suspected terrorist targets – could mean that unprocessed film (from an amateur's holiday snaps to a pro's bulk film order) could be ruined before it arrives at its destination.

[Note the weasel words "could be." Nobody knows for sure right now what the damage to unprocessed film will be. It largely depends on what level of irradiation is used at a site by an individual machine. Nevertheless, Gene Ray, CEO of San Diego's Titan Corp., which is producing high-tech zappers for the government, told the CBS "Early Show" that among the things likely to be severely damaged by so-called "e-beam" irradiation of mail are "electronics and possibly film" sent in letters or packages.]

The good news, of course, is that your film will not be infested with anthrax spores, either.

I, for one, can't fault the government; I'd probably do the same thing under these circumstances. Preventing inhalation anthrax seems a hell of a lot more important than some photographer losing his or her film, no matter what the job, the trip or the event.

But it also is important to note that the law of unintended consequences could be at work here, and that that law can have a wide-reaching effect.

For example:

– You are on vacation and want your holiday slides waiting for you on your return. You plunk your exposed film into several processing envelopes and confidently mail the film off to a lab you have used for years. But when the lab soups the film, which has been irradiated somewhere along the way, the images are ruined.

– You are a successful wedding shooter, who for years has been shipping exposed rolls to a high-volume professional lab in another city that caters to wedding photographers. With the Postal Service action, you figure you always can use UPS, FedEx or other private carriers to ship your film. But what happens in the event that these carriers begin to zap their packages as well? [Note: as of today, most private carriers do not routinely x-ray packages and have no plans to irradiate. But, given these uncertain times, nothing is foreclosed.]

– You run a small business and contract out your bookkeeping and other financial record keeping. Every four weeks, you mail your accountant a floppy disk with the month's figures. One day, the accountant calls up and says the data are a hopeless garble.

– You are a commercial photographer who shoots everything from annual reports to weddings. In the wake of the Postal Service announcement on irradiation you are congratulating yourself for hand-carrying your exposed film to your town's best custom lab. Then it occurs to you that you order film in bulk from a discount supply house in New York and that this film can be just as vulnerable to irradiation as any other.

All the above are disasters waiting to happen. But how likely are they to occur?

A reassuring bit of common sense is offered by Carl Holder, CEO of New Horizon Technologies, Inc., of Richland, Wash., a firm that is in the running for major government irradiation contracts.

Though not willing to call irradiation harmless to unexposed or unprocessed film ("This is something we haven't put under scrutiny") Holder does make two telling points, that have been overshadowed in all the ink and airtime devoted to mail-zapping.

First, is the almost-obvious-on-its-face assertion that no one in the government expects every piece of mail throughout the country to be irradiated. "One of the big problems is not to sanitize all the mail, but (only) the mail that has a possibility" of posing a threat, Holder said in an interview. "I'd say that includes any mail that would go to any major [target] of potential terrorism...Congress, the Federal Reserve, the news media, etc..."

In these cases, where anthrax has been detected – or is suspected – irradiation truly is, according to Holder, "the magic bullet that technology has out there." Or put more simply, zapped mail is safe mail – period.

The second caveat about panic (among photographers, anyway) is that, in most scenarios involving businesses that routinely move large quantities of at-risk goods through the mail or any private carrier using irradiation, "I would guess there would have to be some kind of approved shipping mechanism to route film around the sterilization facility," Holder declared.

This means that "in any type of mail stream there is sorting...[to determine what] can be diverted.... If it's got this stamp...if it has postal codes listed on the package" that designate a known client, the package could reasonably be expected to be delivered zap-free.

Which is fine for goods coming from big firms like film manufacturers or suppliers, photofinishers, or manufacturers of electronic media. But what about packages going to these firms, often sent by individuals around the country? Will using a film processor's mailer, for example, insure against zapping, or will the knowledge that these bulky little envelopes might be a given a free pass be an invitation to mischief or much, much worse?

At this time, who can say?

This is what concerns outfits like Seattle Photo Works (formerly Seattle Film Works), a major processing lab that yearly processes some 4 million rolls of film, mostly from individual amateur photographers sending in thousands upon thousands of processing mailers one or two at a time.

Company officials were understandably reluctant this week to talk for the record in the turbulent aftermath of the Postal Service's action on irradiation. This could, after all, have a devastating effect on the company's bottom line, which amounts to some $50-$60 million annually. It is known, however, that officials at the Washington-state film processor hope that the Postal Service will temper its brave (and after-the-fact) assertions that the mail will be made safe by irradiation with a more pragmatic announcement that irradiation will be applied judiciously and only in those cases where a real threat is perceived.

Nevertheless, just this week another film processor, Burrell Professional Labs, decided it would not wait to get burned, either by the Postal Service or by angry customers complaining about their ruined film. "Because of the harm that can be caused by the Postal Service's scanning equipment," the nationwide chain told its clients, "we urge all customers not to use the U.S. Mail to send their work to our labs."

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post
Joanne Bounincontri, front, and Kim Grant sort mail at the U.S. EPA in NW Washington, DC.

Joel Meyerowitz

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Copyright Infringement: Protecting What Is Yours

Healing Through Art and Memory

Greatness = Being Good Consistently

'In Response to Place' - A Diverse Dozen

Running Scared and Flying Blind

Of Weddings and War


For 15 years, the acclaimed photographer Joel Meyerowitz had a studio on West 19th Street in Manhattan, a sky-lighted aerie that afforded a spectacular view of the New York skyline, including the World Trade Center Towers.

"The towers were by turns hard-edged and glinting...or papery, or brooding and wet," Meyerowitz wrote. "Some days they were pewter or gilded or iridescent..."

A selection of gorgeous 20"x24" color prints of this skyline – as haunting as they are poignant – go on display Saturday, November 10 at the Chevy Chase, Md., gallery of Washington area photography dealer Sandra Berler. All gallery net proceeds from the sale of these prints will benefit the September 11th Fund to benefit victims and their families.

Meyerowitz is one of the greatest color photographers of his generation and is the author of the classic Cape Light. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation as well as from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"A Tribute – New York September 11" Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz. November 10-December 15. Sandra Berler Gallery, 7002 Connecticut Avenue, Chevy Chase, Md. Gallery hours: 1-5pm, Fridays and Saturdays and by appointment. For information: 301-656-8144.