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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Reader's Mailbag on Airport Screening

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

There's an old saw that facing a firing squad certainly gets one's attention. So too did last week's column on the continuing hassles of airport security prompt readers to quickly offer their thoughts and suggestions. My thanks to all who wrote.

If you recall, last week I described west coast shooter Karl Schulmeister's problem with security at Seattle-Tacoma Airport when he tried to have a partially used box of 50 sheets of 4x5 sheet film hand inspected instead of X-rayed. The inspectors apparently never had seen such film. Then I described the awful dilemma of e-mailer Marcia Galles, who lost 200 shots from one of her digital Compact Flash cards, perhaps, she was told, because of airport zapping.

In response to Karl's problems, John F. Dougherty of Baltimore, wrote:

"Your reader who had problems with [Transportation Security Administration] inspection of his sheet film could carry a few things that might help an average person expand their image of what photographic film should look like: (1) an exposed/developed piece of sheet film, (2) empty sheet film box and protective paper, and (3) a Kodak catalog with a photo showing the film box. They might help explain to the TSA personnel that sheet film is just film."

John may be right. And that can apply, not just to carry-on gear that you don't want X-rayed, but also to much bigger gear that you don't want red-flagged by concerned TSA types working out of sight, near the cargo hold of your plane. For example, Washington area location photographer Cameron Davidson, recalling a time he was escorted from a plane to explain a piece of his gear, now tries to avoid such hassles when he travels by packing instruction manuals for his checked gear along with the gear itself. In theory, anyway, this might persuade an inspector that the ominous looking contraption he or she has just red-flagged is, in fact, a high voltage photo battery pack or a strobe head–and not a bomb.

In Cameron's case this also applies to even more arcane gear like a gyro-stabilizer – a big, weird and wonderful gizmo that attaches to the base of a camera and uses an internal gyroscope to hold the camera steady, even when one is shooting handheld from an airplane, or from a moving car, boat or train. In more mundane use, it also is invaluable for allowing one to shoot handheld at otherwise impossibly slow shutter speeds. [The best gyro-stabilizer story I ever heard was from photographer Neil Selkirk who years ago made some wonderfully atmospheric – and tack sharp – pictures in a steamy and dim Turkish bath using a gyro-stabilizer attached to a Hassy Superwide.]

Reader Stephen L. Passman of Vienna, Va. is a frequent photo-traveler who prefers to take with him all the film he needs. But no more. "I have numerous stories of the contrast between what the rules are and what government officials do," he declares. "For our situation and as a practical matter, I think the days of carrying large amounts of undeveloped film on airplanes is gone."

Here is his regimen when he travels within the US:

"For getting film [to a destination], the days have long passed where you can only buy pro quality film in big cities. So, get off the airplane at your destination, buy the film there, and face the fact that you may pay slightly more. Alternately, just ship it to yourself at your destination. I have found that, even if I am going someplace where I don't know anyone, I often can find a local photo enthusiast who will accept a shipment of film. Giving them the address of my website usually convinces them that I am bona fide."

For the return trip, Stephen says he will often ship his film "by mail to my local lab, who is expecting the shipment. That way, much of what I have done is ready to look at when I return." He notes, though, that all this presupposes that the carrier, in this case the Postal Service, but also outfits like FedEx and UPS, do not X-ray or otherwise irradiate their packages. I should note that as of this writing, there are no plans to do so – current indications being that such action can raise more problems than it would solve. So shipping film this way is OK – for now.

For international trips, Passman observes, the problem is different. "For reasonably civilized places such as Venezia most of the above can apply. For more remote places, the problem may well require more ingenuity. [But] One would be shocked...at how remote one must be to be truly remote. I have had excellent [lab] work done in Moscow and Yekaterinburg, for example."

[Note: for those who, like me, are geographically challenged, I offer the following, via Google: Yekaterinburg is a city of about 1.5 million, east of the Urals in central Russia. It's often called the Pittsburgh of Russia because of its heavy industry and steel production.]

Another E-mailer, Michael Mitchell, took me to task for not singing the praises of X-ray-proof lead-lined film bags.

"I pretty much shoot slow films (nothing above 125 ISO) and carry everything in a film shield bag made for fast films (the bag manufacturer claims it will protect 1000 ISO films).

"I am surprised that none of the X-ray machines has [alerted] any of the inspectors with respect to the film bag...By the way, I shove the film shield bag to the bottom of my camera bag, which is full of mostly medium format gear, and most often, after it goes through the X-Ray machine, they want to see the gear–never the filmbag!"

I told Michael that I didn't mention lead-lined bags because I found them to be of dubious utility. The conventional wisdom, I said, is that an opaque image on an inspection monitor would automatically prompt a question and – once film was shown to be inside the bag – would almost always prompt a demand that the film be X-rayed, especially if it were of a lower ISO.

"By forgetting about the (heavy) lead bag," I said, "and simply putting film cassettes in a clear plastic Zip-Loc bag, you are one step ahead of the game – especially if you exercise your right to demand hand inspection."

And, I noted, you don't need to be a pro or have a press card to do this. The TSA's own rules give you this right. [As an added precaution, I have printed out the TSA rules from their website and carry them in my camera bag.]

"The fact that you seem to have never triggered an inspection of your lead bag is puzzling to me," I wrote Michael. "But it only goes to prove that it all depends on who looks at your stuff on the day you fly."

For the last word, I'll call on longtime reader Dave Roels, a veteran convention and portrait photographer from Vancouver, British Columbia. His experience all over the world, with inspectors good and bad – as well as with balky Compact Flash cards–is instructive, and sometimes pretty funny.

"In Hong Kong," Dave reports, "I insisted and almost got into a verbal fight with immigration when I asked for a hand inspection. I had over 100 rolls of film with me, many 3200 ISO. Finally they let me through and when I was at the table they asked to see my passport and then wrote down the number. In a sarcastic tone of voice I said, 'what are you going to do: tell my mother?'"

But, Dave goes on, it was a whole other story in China, of all places.

"I was also in Beijing and they were so friendly I took out my mini 4 x 6 portfolio of b/w prints of Hong Kong and China leaders and showed it to the customs inspection lady. She took a look and knew who the people were and put a big smile on her face and sent me on through.

"[Then] In January I went to Hawaii with my wife on vacation and I took only my Canon 1D Digital along with my iBook and a number of CDs. I shot 1661 digital files on my vacation. I burned them all to CD just in case and I left them also on my iBook. When we arrived at the Honolulu International Airport the beautiful Hawaiian native lady stepped up before we put anything through the X-ray machine and told us to read the notice about film. She said if we have any film, to have it hand checked. How about that? Talk about nice. This was the first time I have been through customs RELAXED."

In addition, I think Dave may be right about reader Marcia Galles' CF card disaster.

"As far as the lady with the CF card and customs, it must be the CF card for sure. One of my Hawaiian photographer friends who has been shooting digital for 5+ years told me he has CF cards [on which] one or two frames always go missing. But the rest download [normally.]"

Roels noted that he too has had similar problems with his own CF cards.

Is it any wonder I still shoot damn near everything on film?

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.


Jack Dempsey - AP
Readers confirm that airport security remains a hassle, especially for photographers. But things do seem to be improving – slowly.


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Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

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