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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

10 Years After: Airport Security Survival Guide

Our expert guides you through the travails of travel for photographers in the post-9/11 era

Part of a 2001 project on the U.S.-Canada border for Smithsonian magazine, this photo became a causality of 9/11.

Two weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was in the security line at Newark Airport once again. You know you fly a lot when the personnel behind the automated check-in kiosks all greet you by name. I was at this same airport at exactly the same time 10 years ago, a week or so before the horrific event. Airport security was different in those days. Ironically, I was on my way north to shoot a cute story for Smithsonian magazine about how porous, open and friendly the U.S.-Canada border was in northern Vermont. I was going to photograph a street in one town where one side was in the U.S., the other in Canada; an opera house where the audience sat in the U.S., but the stage was in Canada—stuff like that.

Needless to say, given the events of the following week, the story never ran.

But something happened to me at the airport that morning that almost prevented the assignment from even being shot. As I was checking in multiple bags of lighting gear at the airline counter, somebody came up behind me, scooped up the carry-on bag that was behind me at my feet and made off with it—right in front of everybody else in line and airport personnel behind the counter.

Nobody noticed the theft, not even me, until I finished the long excess-baggage check-in procedure and reached for my film bag (film—that's how old this story is!) and found it missing. I quickly canvassed fellow travelers and nearby airline personnel, but nobody noticed anything.

When I asked to report it to the police, everybody shrugged on how to contact the Port Authority police, until one airline employee suggested I go out to the curbside and flag down the police as they cruised around. That's what I did, and it turned out that there was a well-dressed band of grifters working the airport that morning who were snatching bags—at 7:30 a.m. I was already the 12th person to report a theft that day.

I ended up catching my flight because I always check in almost two hours early. I planned to buy film at small-town Vermont prices and then shoot a delightful job full of quirky locations and fun people. Then, a week later, the unthinkable happened.

Fast-forward a decade. Whatever you think about the current state of airport security or the lack thereof, scanners, pat-downs and long lines are the new reality. And even a decade later, it doesn't look like it's going to change. It's easier to see the police presence in the terminal, and gangs of grifters don't see airports as quite as juicy a target as they once did, but villains still lurk, and theft at security lines is a major concern.

And that explains why, although it's in the high 90s outside and the airport climate control is losing the battle to keep the terminal cool, I'm wearing a field jacket, with large zip pockets. It's not that I enjoy sweating, but this is part of my own personal defense strategy. I travel with two carry-ons: a camera bag, usually a Lowepro Outback 300 AW, and a rolling bag, the diminutive Think Tank Airport AirStream, for my 13-inch MacBook Pro and assorted drives, cords, chargers, adapters, Kindle, extra eyeglasses and other items.


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