Nearly two decades ago I found myself at an airport in Chattanooga, Tennessee, bound for New York City. The idea of one common place that attracts the extremes of humanity has always fascinated me. Who are these people? Where did they come from? Where are they going and what’s their story? On that day twenty years ago no one at that airport knew my story.
My uncle had finally passed away and I needed to fly back to New York for his funeral. The grand finale of a lifetime of yo-yo dieting ended uneventfully as his cancer helped him lose weight one last time, almost all his weight, till there was nothing left of him.
As I sat at the airport waiting for my plane to board, I thought about the things I would stand up and say at his last party and post-life family get-together. I wasn’t officially asked to give the formal eulogy but even back then I knew I was the only one who could gather the right words that would connect those that arrived there for his departure.
And that was what I wrote about back then at that airport. When someone passes away, are they the ones departing or are they indeed the ones arriving, at another destination? Who actually leaves who? Do we leave them in the past and continue living on or do they leave us in this life plane and continue on to the next, resonating on another level of energy?
Flash forward to now and I’m at Tampa Airport this past weekend, where I found myself still wondering many of the same questions. Only so much has changed at airports in the past twenty years that in addition to who are the people, why are they there and where are they going… we have that common question of what exactly are they doing and could they be a terrorist. Yes… a new question has been added to the airport inquiry list.
Furthermore, announcements frequented the airwaves throughout the terminal reminding everyone to report suspicious behavior. Apparently, me wandering around the airport taking pictures of everyone is considered suspicious because they eventually caught up with me. As we approach the anniversary of 9/11 when the whole world changed, I thought I’d share my little airport story.
But for now, let’s start out with this first glimpse into the world of arrivals and departures with the first officer who suspected me of wrong doing and a woman riding around on her scooter. She rode around that airport, round and round. I didn’t see any officers coming up to her inquiring as to the nature of her scooting. But really the worst part was this ancient recollection of someone I once knew who always referred to her private parts as her scooter.
I found this next particular fellow very interesting. He sat in that corner and played with his mobile device the whole time I was patrolling for pics. I thought he looked Tibetan and fabricated a whole story in my head about how his parents wanted him to become a monk and he ran away in rebellion. He wanted nothing to do with his past, though he did like the haircut that the monks had, so he kept that.
Then there was this funky couple with the Google Glass. Very few people know about Google Glass but being a product designer, a web guy and just a general curious one about the newest coolest stuff out there… I knew about it. And there they were. Not one pair but two people each with their own pair of Google Glass Glasses.
I imagined him saying to his Google Glass, “Google Glass, take picture of the man staring at me with the camera” and the Google Glass would take a picture of me and automatically send that .jpg to his photo stream in his phone. Then he would notice my brand of camera and say, “Google Glass, search Canon seven dee” and Siri would serve up a search return page on his Google Glass for him to read with his one eye, complete with voice response delivered by speaker in the Google Glass earpiece.
I imagined she was saying to her Google Glass, “Google Glass, check flight status for Delta departures today at 6pm.” And the Google Glass would present her eye with a search return screen for her to view and pick out her flight and check her departure times.
Then she would notice a woman walking by with pretty handbag. “Google Glass, search Coach Handbags…”
Though there is still a lot of solo travel, I couldn’t help noticing the many couples at the airport and how some of them entertained each other. Not knowing for sure whether they were traveling together or just disarming the sadness of the impending separation through departure with a little humor, I watched them. This couple tried on almost every silly hat. It was mostly him trying on the funny hats while she looked on and giggled.
Then there was the massive escalators between levels. Some coming up and some going down. And on these escalators people were carried. Some happy and some not so happy. I started to become acutely aware of people around the airport staring at me while I was taking pictures of them.
It’s so odd that I’m usually so invisible but with the ongoing announcements, “… Please be alert and report any suspicious activity to the nearest authority…” it was as if they were saying, “Please keep an eye out for Barry… he is taking your picture for no particular reason…” and yeah… I started to get a little paranoid and felt a bit guilty.
As I surveilled the various arrival gates and continued to walk round and round, I noticed this one spot that had amazing light coming down from a skylight. Oblivious to everyone and anything, I stopped and shot the scene. I captured two couples that were also oblivious to everyone and everything.
There they were out in the open, clutched in their last embrace before one of them was to depart. Both of them separate and different, both of them the same. And in between them both was one solo weary traveler heading to their gate.
People arriving, people departing, people elated to depart and people sad about the separation and leaving; all in one place. They hug each other goodbye and they hug each other hello, they kiss each other in greeting and departure, they cry for sadness and happiness.
One’s perspective is the only distinction that defines and separates the same exact action. What is the difference between a cry of pain and a cry of ecstasy? Would they not appear identical without knowing the context? Are people walking to a gate or walking from a gate?
I watched and continued to guess and capture the back story of those at the terminal…
This guy caught my eye. At first I thought it was just a yellow hat. Then I saw it was a chicken hat. Then I saw his neck tie and figured it was a duck hat. But something suspicious about him made me think he might have been some undercover officer trying to look like a tourist waiting on the arrival of someone. I almost reported him for wearing a suspicious hat.
One time I was on an elevator with a guy that had race horses all over his tie. Trying to be clever, I asked, “Who won?” He was cleverer replying, “None of them won… it’s a tie.”
I took the time to do what few people do. When most arrive at an airport they are consumed with catching their flight or they are delayed, shackled and have to sit with bags or kids. I had the luxury of just wandering with my camera into every nook and cranny the terminal had to offer.
That was when I stumbled upon the chapel. This was the place anyone of any faith could go and pray to their lord that the plane takes off safely or arrives safely. There was even a little prayer mat for those that do the prayer mat thing. I found this room odd since the seats were set up like an airplane and the altar looked strangely like the cockpit door. Maybe the interior designer asked the client, “How do you want this room to look?” and the client replied, “It doesn’t matter, something plane is fine.” Maybe that’s why it looks like a plane…
As I left the chapel and got ready for more of the eye feast, I noticed this chap with the mustache and the red suspenders. I was so taken by the care and feeding of his mustache and wondered how much time he must take to groom it and trim it and wax it to get that perfect curl.
I was so consumed with his matching gray side burns to his fancy beard and mustache, I didn’t even notice the weird and creepy sores on his legs.
As I captured this last shot of his mustache close up, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a gang of police officers heading my way. I got all excited thinking that some amazing crime was going down and there I was with my camera and I would capture it and my pictures would be published and I would once again be famous… but…
Nope… it seems that I was the target of law enforcement once again. They came up to me with their hands on their weapons and surrounded me. “Excuse me sir but may we ask what you are taking pictures of?” So I told them of all the cool people and lighting and the philosophy of arrivals and departures looking identical without knowing the context.
I even showed them some of my pictures and told them they should have a gallery show featuring some of my shots. I handed them one of my cards and told them I was a street photographer and my intentions were not threatening. They told me that for the past half hour people all around the airport had been calling security reporting some suspicious looking guy was taking pictures; that would be me.
They asked me to cease and desist and I almost asked them to group together so I could get a shot of all the cops that wanted me to stop taking pictures… but I figured that would be pushing my luck. So shuffled over to one of the gates and just sat down. Now I looked like everyone else that was waiting for someone or something with no tell of my context back story.
As I sat there beaten and defeated, i wondered how I was ever going to get any pictures in that chair. That was when one of my favorite scenes just appeared. A couple of little people walked my way. I discretely captured them without attracting the attention of patrolling cops who had now targeted me as a photo terrorist.
Sensing the end of this photo session, a man arrived next to me as I sat there and prepared to put my camera away for the day. I looked up at him and stared and realized he was oblivious to me so I slowly raised my not so ancient weapon and took my modern-day shot of him reading his book about someone far more exciting and threatening than me.