When I had a film camera, I was totally paranoid about passing film through the X-ray machines at the airport. I always handed my film, exposed or not, around the outside of the device for manual inspection. The guards always helped out… until September 11, 2001, when airports declared war on carry-ons. (These days, they’ll X-ray a business card in search of weapons.)
Once at CDG in Paris I was carrying four rolls of shot film — my only souvenirs of a vacation in Italy. The guard was a mean-looking woman with a chip on her shoulder the size of the pistol on her hip. Well, OK, maybe she wasn’t armed. She had a glare that would kill baby seals though.
I smiled as best I could in the face of that face, and asked politely if I could pass my film around the outside of the scanner. Unfortunately I didn’t ask this question in French. Every story you’ve ever heard about the French being rude to Americans might well be true. Certainly this one is. This woman was a bitch.
She said “no” in a way that expressed contempt for me, my film, my vacation memories, and my haircut. I explained my concern about film damage and sentimental value. I appealed to her reason, and then to her emotions. I smiled again. She cut me off and pointed with short chopping motions toward the conveyor belt. I think she wanted to send me through there, in case I’d hidden a few more rolls of film in my colon.
I reacted badly. I became angry and possibly a little rude, thus justifying some of the stories the French people tell about those awful Americans. I asked to speak to a supervisor.
Needless to say, in that place I had all the authority of a gnat perched on the edge of a urinal. A second guard approached — not a supervisor, just an additional disagreeable guard. My request was denied brusquely.
Time stretched out. Maybe this is a side-effect of adrenaline, or of blood pressure doubling. A thermal photograph of Paris at this moment would have come back overexposed.
I realized I’d lost the battle. Still seething, I stepped toward the scanner. I was surprised to see both guards stay behind to beat up on the next person in line. In a decision that would leave me shaking for the next ten minutes, I pulled all the film cannisters out of my carry-on before dropping the bag on the conveyor belt. I set the film down next to the frame of the metal detector, stepped through quickly, and reached back for the film. I’d defied orders! I couldn’t look up; I already had visions of French airport police bearing down with clubs in the air. But they were still ten feet away, backs turned, harassing the unfortunate souls who had been behind me. I’d gotten the guard woman all worked up; she was probably even biting the heads off of French people at this point.
I grabbed my carry-on from the conveyor belt. (The guy operating the X-ray machine had been sitting too low to see what I’d done with my film.) And then I walked very quickly down the concourse, as if they wouldn’t be able to find me if they really wanted to. I hid out in a restaurant for 20 minutes, waiting for the Klaxon and red lights.
Because, you know, I could have had a knife inside one of those 35mm film cups. Or a pistol. Or maybe even a bomb!
Sigh. The moral of this story: don’t go to France.
Here is an image of damage done to film by post-9/11 X-ray scanners. Note that this film was in a checked bag; checked bags are zapped with a much higher dosage of radiation than carry-ons, I think about a million Sieverts, which is just under the threshhold where the elastic in your panties will melt.
Read more at the Kodak site: Baggage X-ray Scanning Effects on Film
And finally, you can read what the travel cops at TSA say about transporting film.