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Bad People, Gizmos and More Airport Grief

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

"Air Travelers Told to Expect Closer Checks on Gadgets"
– Washington Post, August 6, 2003.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, some terrorist shark with an apparent penchant for photography gets a brainwave and figures out a better, smaller, more unobtrusive way to attack you.

At least that's what the Department of Homeland Security declared in effect last week, when it warned airline passengers to expect more scrutiny of their beloved electronic toys. Cell phones and shortwave radios, for example, but even more under the gun, as it were, will be photographic equipment.

And, critical though I have been of previous 9/11-inspired security measures, I really can't find fault with the caution being exercised this time. And it is going to be up to us to make our own lives easier when we travel with our photo gear.

The fear, obviously, is that a terrorist or suicide bomber might use a small handheld device like a point and shoot camera or a cell phone to conceal a weapon or an explosive. Anyone skeptical of this need only remember 1988 and the PanAm 747 that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board. Investigators later determined that a bomb had been hidden in a radio-cassette player.

That was 15 years ago, several lifetimes in terms of technological advances, both good and evil. I venture to say that the device that brought down that PanAm jet could be made today both smaller and less detectable.

Of especial interest this time, both to Homeland Security, as well as to the CIA's Terrorist Threat Information Center, is information extracted from captured al Qaeda prisoners that terrorists seem to be looking more to camera gear as potential weapons.

"Examining equipment found in an al Qaeda facility overseas," the Post reported, "CIA officers concluded that terrorists experimented with camera flash attachments in an effort to turn them into stun guns and housings for explosives."

And before last week's announcement, airlines also had been warned that terrorists working in teams of five might hijack an airliner with weapons disguised as cameras.

Why this fascination with photo equipment? Simply because, like it or not, cameras and other photo gear are ubiquitous (and hence easier to overlook) and, more to the point, are pre-disposed to dangerous use.

Frankly, I hadn't realized this until, in light of the Post report, I consulted with an electrical engineer, who noted that a flash unit, for example, already does much of what a stun gun does: rapidly increase voltage to potentially dangerous levels. In the flash's case, however, the voltage helps to harmlessly fire the gas contained in a flash tube. Unfortunately, I was told, it would not take a rocket scientist to modify the unit, to increase the output voltage to a debilitating level, and to conceal a stun gun's twin probes within the unit's flash head.

When I expressed skepticism, my source noted that some stun guns or Tasers are powered by nothing more powerful than a garden variety nine-volt battery. Internal transformers are what make the exponential leap, my source went on, quickly turning those initial nine volts into a dangerous 25,000, or even 50,000, volts.

Even without that sobering knowledge, my wife Judy and I have all but stopped traveling with the ominous-looking high-voltage battery packs that routinely power our professional flash units when we photograph events or weddings. I think that in these skittish times, traveling with these black boxes (see photo) is just asking for it. In the past I have had to remove the unit from my carry-on camera bag, plug in a flash unit and fire it before the inspector was satisfied. Today, it is a safe bet that with more sophisticated CT scanning of checked luggage, a high-voltage battery unit packed in with your undies and jammies could red-flag your checked suitcase, cause it to be pulled from the hold, and get you summoned from your seat, delaying takeoff, until you explained things.

That's why virtually the only bit of camera gear I pack in my checked luggage these days is a small tripod.

As for carry-on, it is likely now that more scrutiny will be given to far more gizmos. Be prepared to be asked to turn on your digital cameras, to show the LCD in action. On film cameras, merely looking through the viewfinder no longer may suffice. Travel with cameras empty so that you can open them up for the screener. [You always can load your cameras once you are cleared for boarding.]

Inveterate film users like me are grateful that, so far anyway, we have the absolute right (in the States, anyway) to request hand-inspection of our film, since even the Transportation Security Administration's own regs now concede that multiple X-ray exposure even by carry-on screening machines may damage undeveloped film. But travelers should allow ample time for hand-inspection, and remove all film from opaque plastic canisters – or, better, place film cassettes in a plastic bag for easier hand inspection.

Even here, though, a zealous screener may look at every single roll you have, and electronically "sniff" it for bomb residue. That's what happened to me on my last trip to Venice in January. And it wasn't just a half-dozen rolls: more like 50. This takes time, but if you allow for it, what else do you have to do? And, when you get right down to it, given the all-too-genuine threat, isn't it a prudent procedure?

Keep smiling. And if you do happen to get some hard case who refuses to hand-inspect, have with you a printout of the TSA's own regs (URL below) and demand to speak to macho man's (or macho woman's) supervisor.


It is a cliché, but you DO pay this person's salary.

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.

©Frank Van Riper
Judy and I know that this high-voltage battery pack is an innocent tool to power a flash unit. But if you didn't know that, and were an airport security screener, wouldn't you be a little dubious about letting this black box onto a crowded plane? The correct answer is yes, which is why my wife and I rarely, if ever, fly with these units anymore.

But these days, a more dangerous item may be a point and shoot camera filled with explosives, or a flash unit modified as a stun gun.


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.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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