I have to imagine that one common thing we share as photogs is an innate fear of crossing borders with gear. It probably expresses itself differently for everyone. Maybe it’s tightness in the chest, or the icy tentacles of dread reaching down into your guts, making you seek out the first bathroom you see after your passport is stamped, or the forced smile and mildly overblown effusiveness of our greeting. “Hi officer, how are you today? Just look at my smiling, innocent face. I couldn’t possibly have a live animal in my suitcase, so no need to go looking!”
Most of the customs folks I’ve ever met are quite decent, and they do an important job. (I travel so much I know some of the crew at Kennedy Airport.) They certainly face off with a onslaught of exhausted travelers, trying to get somewhere, scurrying to make a connection, and are just one question shy of getting surly about the whole deal. It is, after all, a border, a crossing. Everybody on both sides most likely wishes it could be easier.
We do carnets, all the time, for our gear. It’s like a visa for your equipment, and most of the time, it’s a magic carpet. The officer checks a few things, random, signs off, and you’re on your way. But you have to be careful with those, too. I traveled by myself to Moscow once, with eleven cases of stuff, and I had one number—one number—wrong on my carnet, and it was all confiscated. Everything. I left the airport without a shred of gear. Took a couple days, and the efforts of my fixer, and some, uh, carefully administered dollars to retrieve it.
I shipped 47 cases of gear once to Chile, to photograph telescopes. That was comparatively easy, actually. I think they looked at this mountain of battered cases that surprisingly got burped out of the baggage belt and just gave up.
Once, I made my way from Rwanda once to Uganda, and went through three checkpoints, and at the last, the guards took all my stuff, including my clothes, and threw it out of the trunk onto the ground. I had hidden my medium format shot film inside the cavernous cavities of my 6×17 pano cameras, and the rest of my shot film was wrapped inside a plastic bag filled with really funky, unwashed clothing, so my film made it. That was thing about the film days. After shooting for a couple weeks on a job, that shot film became much more valuable to you than any lens or camera, and it was not easy to hide or store 60 or 70 rolls of medium format film. Here, take the gear! Just leave me my film.
On another occasion, again leaving Rwanda into the Congo, the border guard didn’t bother with my passport, and simply said, “Avez vous quelque chose pour moi?” Uh, why yes, young man, have you met Andrew Jackson?”
Traveling from Ingushetia to Grozny, my intrepid fixer, Igor, who happened to be the freelance correspondent for the Russian edition of Playboy, took a bunch of copies of the magazine and threw them on the visor of the rental car. When going through a checkpoint, the first thing the young Russian conscript would see would be a lovely lady, hi-beaming him through the windshield.
“Can I have magazine?”
“Sure, can we go?” Sure! And onward we’d roll.
I recently made another trip to Canada, which is a place I’ve done a lot of work, and love to go to. I’ve taught up there, shots jobs all over the country, and once did a huge commercial job for Fedex right on the border, north of Seattle. For whatever reason, though, no matter how much I’ve done the transit, the US-Canada border remains the most difficult, nerve-wracking crossing I have ever made. Now, it must sound ridiculous for an American to complain about anybody’s border formalities, as we have a reputation for being a mite prickly ourselves, but sometimes going into Canada can have its moments. (I wonder sometimes if it’s like we get tough on people for a while, so they correspondingly ratchet things up? Dunno.)
On my first transit in, I really should have had a work permit. I was doing not just lectures, but also seminars, and the officer explained that was “providing a service,” and thus required a work permit.
She was quite nice, and told me her range of options included sending me home. But, she opted to allow me to purchase a one-time work permit, right then and there. Took some time, as she made calls to check me out, during which time my cell phone was quarantined, but it got done, and I was thankful. Paid the fee, got the documents, and was on my way. Took a two and half hours, but I crossed the border.
I thought my troubles were behind me, but I did have to bounce from Vancouver to Washington DC for LIFE job, and then back to Van. She assured me I was good to go, as the dates on the work permit extended through my return trip.
Having been thus stamped and approved, on my return, I approached the customs podium with confidence. The officer noted my work docs and said those papers should answer all his questions.
Actually, just the opposite happened. The work permit was apparently confusing to him, it unleashed a barrage of queries, the first of which was, “Do I have a criminal record?”
Now, I’ve done some criminally stupid things on jobs, with a camera in my hands, but I’ve never been arrested. He seemed dubious, and asked again. “No,” I replied. He changed tactics, asking if I had ever been “in trouble in Canada.” I did teach a Kelby seminar in Vancouver one day with a case of food poisoning, but I didn’t think that was the vein of trouble he was potentially mining, so I again, replied in the negative.
He was pretty relentless, and brought my docs to two other officers to confer about them, and me, I imagine. I was feely poorly, as it was after midnight, and I was an unshaved, scruffy mess. I mean, I would not have let me into Canada simply based on aesthetic considerations.
He took a red magic marker and began to furiously scrawl on my immigration form. He was really bearing down, so much so I grew wide eyed and tried to look over his counter on tiptoes. I saw that my document had basically become a fourth grade art project, featuring large, looming letters, mixed in with perhaps an exclamation point or two. He handed it over to me and told me to move on, but said that “We’re going to continue to check you out.”
I replied, “No worries, officer,” in downright cheery fashion. I have found it does no good to get cranky in these scenarios. You are absolutely under the control of the customs officer at hand. You can neither go back, nor go forward, without their blessing. So, if you are encountering someone who is determined to “continue to check you out,” so be it. All you can do is be calm, and honest.
I approached the secondary checkpoint with a document that was now glowing. I might as well have dressed in a threadbare, tattered, stained smock, hung a “LEPER” sign around my neck and started chanting, “Bring out your dead, bring out your dead.” The officer at that point directed me to Area B. On my first entry a week previous, I got Area A, so I felt a little uneasy about this. Had I been downgraded? Or was Area B where the real serious miscreants end up? I envisioned myself perhaps being sentenced to forced labor at a Molson’s factory, or being locked in a room and forced to watch endless repeats of Team Canada’s victory over the US hockey team in Sochi. I was worried.
But then another customs officer approached me, and he was quite friendly. He looked at me and said, “You’re Joe McNally, right?” I said yes, though at that point I thought I was thinking of trying to pass myself off as Moose Peterson. He said, “I’ve got your books.” That gave me the sense my evening was about to get better, unless of course he hated TTL.
But we had a good chat, and he disappeared for a short bit and told me I was okay to go. Adventures at the border!