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Traveling Photogs Finally Get a Break

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The KLM flight out of Dulles was going to be full but Judy and I had made sure to reserve side-by-side aisle seats and so we weren't all that worried about being crammed.

We had sailed through security with the TSA, which seemed to have relaxed its shoe fetish at least for now, letting us keep ours on as we went through the screening. The hand inspection of the more than 50 rolls of film we were taking for our two-week shooting trip to Venice went off smoothly and professionally. [Note: this is how it should be done – all film out of plastic canisters and into clear plastic bags. In the US you are entitled to request hand inspection, especially with high speed pro films of ISO 800 or higher, OR if you think ANY of your film, regardless of speed, may be subjected to more than five X-ray passes, the effect of X-ray being cumulative.]

At Dulles, I was pleased to see the screener do the sensible thing and randomly take several rolls from each of our two plastic film bags and wipe each with a chemically-treated cloth. These cloths then were "sniffed" electronically for bomb residue. Finding none on the randomly chosen rolls, the inspector could confidently assume the rest of the rolls were genuine, and let us on our way with barely any hassle.

[Note: on this just-concluded trip, we passed through three airports – Dulles outside of DC, Schiophol in Amsterdam and Marco Polo in Venice. In both Amsterdam and Venice I also was able to have our film hand inspected, but I suspect that the Europeans (who do NOT adhere to the same rules as the US Transportation Security Administration) acceded to my request because the bulk of the film we were carrying was Ilford's ultra-sensitive Delta 3200 black and white. In fairness, though, a Venetian photographer we met who also travels extensively in Europe and elsewhere says he never has trouble with hand inspection of his film, regardless of ISO.]

So our film was fine, we were assured of the seats we requested and should have been relaxed earlier this month as we waited to board the first leg of our trip. After all, our two-carry-ons apiece (One "personal item" and one camera bag for each of us) were well within US regs for such things.

But I wasn't relaxed, not after the KLM rep at the gate kept saying over the loudspeaker that any carry-on luggage we had with us now had to fit through the tiny template he had by his desk – the final hoop we travelers had to jump through before we could board the damned plane to endure six hours of bad food and cramped seating, not to mention the latest Lara Croft Tomb Raider flick.

So when the time to board finally came, I just handed the guy my boarding pass and walked by him. Judy did the same and we were able to easily stow our gear in the overhead. Still it was a bit of last-minute agita that I didn't need or appreciate.

In fairness, the two carry-ons per person rule makes sense when people, especially at the holidays, or when flying back home overseas, try to bring all manner of bulky items on board with them, making life miserable for other passengers. My beef is with the stupid little template, especially when planes are routinely fitted with overhead bins designed for larger bags. This always has been a hassle for traveling photographers, who simply cannot afford to check through their valuable and fragile camera gear, and who therefore often have been forced to check through whatever else they are carrying, even if they would much rather land at their destination and get to work, and not wait around crowded luggage carousels or, worse, face the misplaced or stolen luggage nightmare.

Now, though – in the US anyway – that might be changing, thanks to the efforts of both the TSA and the American Society of Media Photographers, of which I have been a member for some two decades. This month, the TSA announced new regulations declaring that working photographers and other members of the public traveling with lots of camera gear may now take on board an additional piece of carry-on baggage, provided it is used for equipment.

Quoth the TSA:

"You may carry one (1) bag of photographic equipment in addition to one carry-on and one (1) personal item (emphasis added) through the screening checkpoint. The additional bag must conform to your air carrier's carry-on restrictions for size and weight....In cooperation with the American Society of Media Photographers, this policy was expanded primarily to accommodate working photographers traveling with sensitive, valuable equipment. Working photographers, and other members of the traveling public, (emphasis added) are encouraged to carry photographic equipment and film as carry-on luggage..."

The wording of the new reg, which TSA now is disseminating to screeners nationwide, seems to obviate the need for Uncle Louie the camera buff trying to convince a security person that he is really stringing for the AP. Anyone carrying lots of camera gear can take advantage of it. For working pros, this can mean not having to make the hellish choice of, say, checking through a laptop (either packed in a suitcase or in its own case) because you already are carrying your camera bag and a small suitcase, or a briefcase full of research notes. It also can be a way around some airlines' weight-per-item regs if you have to carry heavier items like underwater housings or a gyro-stabilizer.

It is rare for government agencies to make exceptions like this, especially for a single group, and ASMP executive director Eugene Mopsik deserves a lot of credit for helping shepherd through this important change.

Note: this is not like a special interest amendment tacked onto a massive appropriations bill during a frantic mark-up. Those usually are the result of big-time lawyers and lobbyists for deep-pocketed corporations funneling money into the re-election campaigns of key lawmakers. This change was brought about by a group representing working photographers who, seeing their livelihoods threatened on a number of fronts, decided on this issue not to take no for an answer.

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
Our traveling kits for flying. Judy likes her LowePro photo backpack. It's well-padded, very comfortable to carry even when loaded, and can easily accommodate several bodies and lenses. It also has lots of room in the front pockets. My much less elegant bag is an ancient Domke that I have retrofitted with a Tamrac insert to more easily hold lenses, a small flash and a spotmeter, in addition to a Nikon F-100 body and a Leica M6. New regs in the US may allow us to carry an additional photo bag as well.


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

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Loving At First Sight

Again in Search of Acqua Alta

The Hassy Xpan II: Think Leica/Hummer

A Troubled Genius Frozen in Time

Space Cameras: From Ansco to Hassy to Digital

Family Photo Affair: Neat Clix for Biz Pix