What I learned when my Film was "destroyed" by Airport Scanners

Amsterdam Images came out the worst, but I was able to edit a few to save them. I quite like how this one came out.

Amsterdam Images came out the worst, but I was able to edit a few to save them. I quite like how this one came out.

Last October, on our way back from Europe, we left through the airport in Amsterdam. The security team was incredibly helpful as we tried to juggle Sofie, all our bags, and the stroller. They got us through pretty quickl, but in all the craziness, I made some mistakes. In the whirlwind, I heard the voice of the man say not to take any electronics out of our bags because they’d just gotten a new scanner. Normally those words would have set off all the alarms in my head. Those alarms would have said “DON’T PUT YOUR FILM IN THE SCANNER”. But all I heard was “YAY! One less thing I have to deal with”. We got to the airport three hours head of the flight, which is a record for us, but Schiphol is huge and takes forever to get through, so we thought we would have lots of time to shop for candy and friends for Sofie’s Nijntje bunny, Miffy. When we got to the airport, there was a huge line for Aer Lingus due to a previously canceled flight. Needless to say, we did not have time to shop. At all. I was frazzled when we got to security, thus the not listening to anything that could have saved my film. When we got back to the states, I mailed the film to Salem and waited. I think the turn around time was 14 business days at that point, and the wait was killing me. I’d been carrying that film around for a month already. The film came back and… it was grungy looking, dirty, muddy. I was floored. I haven’t had problems like that since the early days (at least not when I knew for sure I’d nailed the exposure). I frantically called PhotoVision, and got good news and bad news. The good news was, I did nail the exposure. YES! The bad news was that the film showed fogging, like I’d stuck the film in a checked bag. I did not. I couldn’t figure out where the film would have gotten the fogging until I remembered the security man talking about the new scanners in Amsterdam. And the theory was solidified with the fact that the one roll of film not affected by this issue was in my camera when it went through Amsterdam. I was furious. This had never happened to me before. I literally had never even asked for hand check at security for any film but black and white. Why was this happening to me? I felt like a screw up even though I knew it could have happened to anyone. And before anything else is said, I’m not starting a debate about how my film could have become foggy or where the fog came from. The theory that this happened in that specific airport is a theory, but the end result without a doubt was foggy film, and I still learned the below lessons from it.

Once my frustration had died down and the anger had subsided, I started to see the silver lining to this whole ordeal. I sat down to edit my favorite photos, and I found that I was able to save quite a few of them in post processing. And then I found that I actually liked how some of them were coming out. They had a moodier, vintage vibe that I have always found appealing while looking through old photos and anthology books but that I always deemed “not my style”. It started to make me wonder what “my style” really was. Had I spent this whole time shooting a certain way because that’s what I was told to do or was it because I actually wanted to completely keep my photography all one specific look? Did this really matter at all? Obviously each session should be cohesive to keep from distracting the audience, but how far does that go? I started doing photography because of this intense desire to make things last forever.

Side story, I used to tell my Grandma that she could never die. And if she did have to die it had to be after I turned 28 because I wanted her to see me grow up, graduate, get married, become a doctor. I wanted her to meet my babies. My grandma died when I was 17 years old. I couldn’t make her live forever just by telling her she had to. But I do have the memories of years and years and piles and buckets of photographs of her. And that has made her live on.

So back to what I learned. I started photography because I wanted to make things last forever, but I also wanted to tell a story. How far away had I gotten from that desire prior to this experience due to the growing fears of how my work would “stick to my brand” and stand out as “fine art”. How far away did I get from shooting what was right in front of me so that I could subconsciously emulate the photographers whose work has continuously inspired mine. The comparison game was at it’s height when these photos came back, and I remember crying over the fact that they didn’t look like KT Merry’s or Erich McVey’s. They didn't have that luminous glow, that perfect light. But… they tell a story. They’re my images. They have their flaws, as does life, and they taught me a lesson.

Will I knowingly let this happen again (not that it was knowingly the first time), no. I mean, not unless it’s for a specific experimental project. But now I know that it’s not the end of the world. Things happen, film gets foggy, life goes on. At the end of the day, the importance of story remained intact.

Here are the lessons:

1) At least ask to have your film checked. You never know if they will.

2) Take a lead bag everywhere

3) Accept the things you cannot change. Figure out what’s important, and don’t fret about the small stuff. h

Sarah Carpenter