Frequent Flyer (Part One:) Before and After Digital

Like most photojournalists, I fly a lot for work. My experiences flying (both good and bad) can be divided into two periods, pre-digital and post digital. “Going digital” has had obvious benefits technologically, but also unanticipated benefits socially, especially when I am traveling.

When I lecture and share my work, I refer to the pre-digital time as the “bad old days of film.” I am referring partly to the fact that with film you could not immediately see the image to check your composition, exposure, etc. Also there was the need to have the film developed in another, separate process. Mostly though for me, the bad old days for me revolved around getting all my film through airport security checkpoints without it being X-rayed.

For a professional photographer working with color slide film and traveling through numerous airports, I regularly confronted X-Ray machines that varied widely in terms of X-ray dosage, the quality of maintenance, etc. Since X-Rays are cumulative in their impact on film, the goal of each trip was to have the film X-Rayed one (or no) times per trip.

I would never put film in checked bags and always hand carry the film. This was no easy feat if I was carrying 150 rolls of slide film for a month’s work in India. I developed a series of strategies over the years. Early trips involved testing parts of the ever-evolving strategies. By the mid point of the era of pre-digital travel, I settled on a largely successful routine. I would strip the film out of the boxes and carry them in one or two large metal film cans, which were normally used to transport motion picture film. Since many security agencies did understand the issue of not of X-Raying high speed film, I always carried highly sensitive film (ISO 3200) to show to the officers, hoping they would then hand search the film. Usually this worked because it was incredibly easy to hand inspect all the film (in the open metal can) and the high-speed film really did need to stay out of the X-Ray machines.

I started to discern patterns in certain airports and cultures. For example, the Israelis were generally happy to hand search my film, though it usually was a long and thorough process, so I was often an early arrival at the security checkpoint. The British were, as a rule, remarkably polite and completely inflexible. Documentation I presented to them, from the British press and film experts never swayed them. So much so that though I used to love London, I stopped flying via Britain in order to eliminate the potential hassle.

The irony was that the more photography work I had (the good news) the more likely I was to have to take a trip through an airport (the bad news.) This reached its zenith one year, when I set my personal record for traveling, being away from home 300 out of the 366 days.

This was largely before the heightened airport security that came in the wake of 9/11. One upside of that event was that, after a time, the TSA codified the rules about X-raying hand carried baggage with film, explicitly allowing photographers to request a hand search.

Every trip in the “bad old days,” used to start with the surge of tension, knowing I was going to have to do my ‘song and dance’ about not X-Raying my film. If there was a connecting flight and another security checkpoint to pass through, the tension surged once again.

Without film, in the post digital age, all of that tension is gone.

I still face long lines and all of the other hassles of flying. I have been stranded in airports as many times as the next road warrior. I have my share of “wild flight” stories to tell. I was once on a flight from Spain when the pilot abruptly aborted the landing at JFK (after the rear wheels touched down) when he saw there was already a plane on the runway he was assigned to use. Another time right after we took off on a flight to Prague, the plane did not “feel” right to me. My fears were confirmed when we immediately circled back and landed (without any real incident) for some emergency repairs.

So, I have been very happy now that digital photography has taken away much (but not all) of the tension out of flying for me. What I had not anticipated was how digital imaging would change flying for me on a social level.

In my travels, I have discovered that telling others about my job is sure to prompt a response. I say that I am a photography teacher and a professional travel/culture photographer. Saying this is a bit like telling someone I am a doctor. Folks never respond by asking me about their back pain, but they do ask me questions about their newest cameras, they want to share their pictures and tell me about their most recent photo adventures.

The frequency of these conversations is rising in the last few years. I think this is because digital photography has removed many of the technical hurdles that kept a lot of people away from photography. So, the number of people generally interested in photography has grown exponentially.

When I am on a plane editing work after a trip to India or Guatemala, people naturally steal a glimpse of my work. When they see that I have something more than snapshots, the kind of work that is not the same as what they have on their computers, they often start conversations. When I was flying to Mexico recently, I had another one of these conversations about photography with both my seat-mate and one of the flight attendants.

I directed them to my web site, “the Wells Point.” I built the site and continually add content to help those folks who want to perfect the process of getting what is in front of their camera onto film, a digital chip or photo paper. The folks I meet while flying certainly seem to be the type who would be interested in improving their photography.

Digital photography has eliminated much of the anxiety I used to live with when I was trying not to get my film X-Rayed. That change is not a big surprise. The big surprise is how digital photography has enabled me to share my passion for photography, on line on my new web site and across the armrests of the airplanes that I frequent.

2 responses to “Frequent Flyer (Part One:) Before and After Digital”

  1. if digital photography could provide an antidote for less skilled or incompetent regional air carrier pilots or aircraft equipment failures or air traffic controller mistakes, this would be a better world. 🙂

  2. I can echo the point about the frequency of in flight conversations both as the person who’s work is being eyed and as the person eying other’s work.

    On one flight the person in the seat in front of me was reviewing photos. I recognized several of them from having recently seen them in news magazines and struck up a conversation. That person turned out to be David Hume Kennerly, Pulitzer prize awarded photographer, who turned out to be very friendly and approachable. He was a big fan of going digital and at the time was carrying a Canon prosumer (a 20D or 30D i forget now)-he raved about the prosumer cameras being the right size to shoot most location work. at the time he was shooting the early stages of the presidential election. He said he only used his 1Ds MkII for big print work.

    .I don’t know if its meaningful, but ironically Ernest Borgnine (long lived and Oscar awarded movie actor) was on the same flight sitting in the same section. He was, surprisingly, very down to earth and gregarious and more than happy to talk about anything. He and an adjacent seat mate shared notes on their experiences during WWII

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