[We had a five-hour layover between flights and I was all set to flash my congressional press card and ask for professional courtesy, even if we were traveling economy class. But, with no one at the desk when we showed up, Judy and I just sauntered in like we owned the joint, settled into the overstuffed seats and passed a pleasant several hours, reading, napping and, in my case, drinking free German beer.]
The other good fortune we encountered this trip included a half-empty Frankfurt-to-Dulles flight a real anomaly, probably fueled by war jitters. Then there was the continued great access we enjoyed over the course of three weeks as we endeavored once again to document Venice not only as an architectural marvel but as a living, breathing city.
Still, the best bit of luck we had was that, once more, nobody messed with our film at any of the several security checkpoints we went through in the US, Germany or Italy.
Airline security, especially as practiced at different airports in different countries following 9/11, remains a nerve-wracking experience for the traveling photographer. And e-mail messages from two readers who contacted me while I was in Europe confirm that security people still need to be educated about the damage they can do to people whose only interest is in making photographs. And, if the experience of one of these readers is any indication, that concern even may extend to photographers working digitally, who until now had assumed that they were immune from any worries about damage to their electronic "film" by X-ray and other airport screening.
Writing from the west coast, photographer Karl Schulmeisters complained about the way he was treated by Transportation Security Administration staff at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. "Recently I was traveling with sheet film for which the seal on the box had been opened (after all, with 50 sheets of 4x5, it takes a while to go through it).
"The TSA at SeaTac was NOT equipped to hand inspect the film," Schulmeisters reported. "They still did not have a 'changing bag' or anyone skilled in inspecting such film..."
Schulmeisters opined that he could have gone to "the simple expedient of putting a fake sealing label" on his box of film to "fool" the inspectors, and keep it from ultimately being put through X-ray, but I have my doubts. At tense times like these I think any such subterfuge or attempt to deceive security staffers is just asking for it.
The simple fact is that, just as most members of the public think "35mm point and shoot" when they think of photography, so too is it likely that security personnel as professional and well-intentioned as they now might be in the US are just unfamiliar with unusual camera gear such as, say, a 4x5 Sinar or Linhof and the sheet film it requires.
The ideal solution here would have been for security people at SeaTac to chemically "sniff" Schulmeister's closed film box for bomb residue which is all they really care about. That's exactly what was done to our 35mm and 120 film at Dulles on our way to Europe, as well as in Venice's Marco Polo Airport, and the Frankfurt airport, on our way home. This can take a while, but if you allow extra time, you can blithely watch this exercise proceed knowing that you won't miss your plane.
In this case, though, I fear that Schulmeister's film did not fit the average person's image of what photographic film should look like, and that just made things worse.
Suggestions on how to deal with this? E-mail them to me and let's see what we come up with.
Much more troubling though I emphasize the culprit here remains unclear is the recent experience of another e-mailer, Marcia J. Galles. Noting my recent column on improved airport security, and my observation that digital media so far have seemed immune to the effects of X-ray and other screening, she wrote:
"(W)hen I came home from Spain/Portugal at the beginning of (January), over 200 shots of mine were mysteriously trashed from my CF card. Canon claimed it couldn't be my new (PowerShot) G3; that it was most likely the result of the airport screening process. I have no way of knowing at this point what the culprit was. The curious thing about it was that the missing photos were in the middle of a 256 compact flash card, and all those shots before and after the missing ones were fine."
Marcia went on to say that "a file name/place holder existed for them on the card when sucked into my computer via a USB reader, but the file itself came up empty. Even Photoshop opened the file as if there was a photo to be viewed, then opened a blank file. I should note that I saw the shots in replay mode after they were taken, so they did indeed exist at that point. No one I've checked with has a clue what happened, and all have blamed it on the screening process, which is why I was interested in your comment that digital doesn't seem to be affected. In the end, that may simply be Canon's (and others') way of blowing me off. Who knows? It may be entirely unrelated, or it may be a problem that is only beginning to surface with changes in airport equipment."
Marcia's e-mail gave me bigtime pause. But so far, the people I have contacted about this are unwilling to point the finger at the security machines. For example, a photographer and longtime salesman at one of the DC area's largest and best photography stores told me the fact that the corruption on the CF card was almost surgically precise points more to a problem with the electronic media than with the security machines.
"X-ray damage usually is like a shotgun it's all over," my friend noted.
His suspicion: a faulty CF card.
Still, there is the intriguing possibility that Marcia's camera and CF card went through, not an X-ray machine, but a different, more powerful, CT scanner. These machines ultimately will be used to screen, not just checked bags but also hand luggage, at all US airports, if the TSA and the Office of Homeland Security have their way. They are said to already be in use this way at some airports around the country.
Still, if I had to bet, I also would suspect the CF card, especially since Marciaone very determined photographer ultimately was able to retrieve her images.
"In my usual stubborn fashion I refused to accept a negative answer and kept digging for a solution," she wrote. "At one point, frustrated, I typed in 'compact flash failure' (or something similar) and did an Internet search which turned up a nifty $29 program named Photorescue that, to my amazement, managed to retrieve [the images] despite assurances from all corners that they were gone for good. But despite the happy ending I'm reluctant to count on digital at this point. I've lauded the benefits of digital in the video/film edit bay for years, but for stills, I'm inclined to stick with film. At least for now."
[I should note that retrieving images from crashed or inadvertently deleted CF cards is becoming a new growth industry. Photorescue, and other services, do indeed promise to pull back pictures once thought to have been lost forever. See www.datarescue.com/photorescue/ for more information.]
In our case, working only with film, I was able to have hand inspection, even in Europe, where such inspection is not necessarily a passenger's right. [In the States, as I have written before, the TSA's own rules allow a traveler to insist on hand inspection even for films of lower ISO's that in the past had been deemed safe to X-ray. Happily, TSA finally concedes the fact that multiple exposure to X-ray, even with low-ISO emulsions, is cumulative and therefore potentially harmful.]
What struck me at every checkpoint here and abroad was that no one had ever seen the Ilford Delta 3200 bxw film that Judy and I have been using happily for years. Which in a way was fine because the film's "shock value" was enough to convince the inspectors to hand inspect with no further argument. Thus it may be prudent to carry a few rolls of this great film with your regular emulsions, if for no other reason than to forestall the hoary argument that X-ray won't harm any film under ISO 800 or 1600.
Another bit of advice: have film processed abroad if possible since processed film really isn't affected by X-ray. Once again, our friend Daniele Cesana of Cesana Photo in Venice souped as much of our C-41 Kodak T400CN as we could bring him. But because it's almost impossible to have processed film in Europe put into the kind of loose-leaf-holed negative pages that I prefer, I simply had Daniele process the film and leave it uncut, sheathed only in acetate to keep it from scratching.
This trip, though, Daniele gave me a great present: a big film can, of the type that once held motion picture stock, and which I now can use to hold literally scores of 35mm negative strips. The can will now go with me every time Judy and I travel and photograph.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.