[A]irports are sites where identity is confirmed or questioned; they are spaces of public display; they are contested zones where privacy and national security vie for priority; they are complex factories for the production of patriotism and the privilege of mobility. At the same time, airports can be considered as generic spaces, forgettable and often uncomfortable. They are designed to be passed through, and in rapid fashion...
Christopher Schaberg, The Textual Life of Airports
Travelling with film is not that difficult. However, the airport represents one of the great challenges to a travelling film photographer. If precautions are not taken, standard security screening processes can irreversibly damage unprocessed film. It is in the transition from landside to airside that the performance of modern security theatre can harm our film.
These are the terms of our entry to airports. An acknowledgement that airports offer both incomparable freedom and stringent security. One such security measure is the screening of passenger luggage. While it is intended to keep air travel safe by preventing dangerous items from getting on planes, common screening methods, such as X-ray machines may damage unexposed film. This damage takes the form of "fogging" our film, a bit like opening the back of a camera half way through a roll. Film is sensitive to radiation, of which visible light and X-rays are but two wavelengths.
Fortunately, there is plenty we can do to prevent this from occurring. Here are a few golden rules you can follow to make the film photographer airport experience run as smoothly as possible:
1: NEVER EVER PLACED UNPROCESSED FILM IN CHECKED LUGGAGEChecked luggage is subject to very intense explosive detecting, space-time warping X-ray screening that will SEVERELY DAMAGE YOUR UNPROCESSED FILM. GUARANTEED. Never, ever leave your unprocessed film in there.
Processed film is fine to place in check luggage. That said, processed film may be immune to the effects of X-rays, however it is not immune from being sent to Melbourne, FL, instead of Melbourne, Australia. It is highly recommended you keep all processed film on you at all times.
2: ALWAYS place unprocessed film in your hand luggageKeep your film with you at all times. No, this is not a canned security announcement, it's for the sake your film and irreplaceable images. Hand luggage screening uses a less-intense form of X-rays, meaning your film should be relatively safe.
Any exposure to X-rays will affect your film, but it won't be visible from only a few passes. According to a 2003 Kodak technical publication, 400 ISO film will start to see some degradation after 6 X-ray scans, but results can vary. Some of my film (up to 800 ISO) went through up to 8 scans over my two months of travel and I've not noticed any degradation.
The higher the speed of your film, the more sensitive it is to all forms of radiation, including X-rays! It's important to note you can request a hand inspection of your film in order to avoid the X-ray machine entirely, but your mileage may vary (see below).
3: ALWAYS place your film in a clear and accessible container/bagKeep your film accessible at all times. Better yet, don't place it in your carry-on bag, keep it in your hand. A general rule every air traveller should follow is to be prepared for the processes of security before reaching the queue. Don't hold the queue up by fiddling around with a dozen different rolls of film stuck somewhere between your copy of the Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Repetition by Eric Van Lustbader and your boarding passes. Keep your film together and place it separately on the X-ray conveyer.
Even after your film gets x-rayed, inquisitive security-types may wish to take a closer look, so keep it accessible. I cheated a bit here and used an opaque Japan Camera Hunter 120 case, but at least it's easy to open for inspection and keeps all the film together.
A few sandwich bags never go astray when travelling
I often get asked about my cameras by security staff, although they've usually impressed by the gear. One security guard at Munich Airport took such a liking to my Leica, I was getting a bit concerned. He was a bit confused by an Australian owning a German camera, but he was happy nonetheless. That said, I'm told a Hasselblad and Leica look pretty awesome on X-ray.
4: ASK for a hand inspection of your film, but be prepared to be rebuffed
At most screening points, you can ask for a hand inspection of you film. In theory. In practice, this may not occur. The security staff will usually state that the X-ray machine is "safe" up to 1600 ISO. Alas this doesn't take into account any cumulative X-ray exposure your film may have incurred from prior screenings.
Be polite, you might get lucky, but will the staff will more likely counter that the machine is "safe" for film. Don't get angry. That won't be good for anyone. Some photographers recommend placing a "dummy" 3200 speed roll in their bag, just so they can justify a hand inspection. Again, not something I've ever done, but has been known to work.
Be aware that asking for a hand inspection of goods may single you out for further forms of "enhanced" screening, such as explosives testing and hand inspection of all your carry-on luggage.
5: UNLOAD your camera before screeningAlthough this isn't always critical, it is best to travel without loaded cameras. It's never happened to me, but have heard of security staff wishing to inspect the innards of cameras. Best case, you waste part of a roll by having to rewind it to open the camera. Worst case, some clumsy security fool opens your camera for you (rare, but it has reportedly occurred).
6: NEVER use "X-Ray Safe" lead-lined bags for film storageThese foil and lead-lined bags were popular items back in the day, however these days they're, at best, useless. At worst, they will lead to the irreversible damage of your film. These bags theoretically render items contained within opaque to X-ray screeners.
If you were an X-ray operator, would you allow a giant grey blob of mystery through to the gate? Probably not. Best case, the operator asks you to open the bag and inspects the contents, worst case the operator increases the power of the X-ray radiation in order to penetrate the bag. Whoops. Film. Fogged. Pictures. Gone.
7: BE POLITE and do not rage against the (X-ray) machineGetting angry with security staff will not get you anywhere. Whatever your personal opinions may be on the "security theatre" of the airport, it's a shit job and the security staff are there for the protection of the air-travelling public.
It is much better to grin a bear a few minutes of security screening than risk missing your flight.
I'll have a lot more to write on airports at another time, thanks to the inspiration of The Textual Life of Airports. I'm sure you can't wait.
Continued in Part III - Buying Film and Developing