Polly Brown

(X-Ray) Photography at Airport Security Checks


We caught up with London based photographer Polly Brown to talk about her latest series AIRPORTALS.

Where About Now Where are you right now reading these questions?

Polly Brown I am at home in London and it’s raining for the 7th consecutive day in a row.

WAN Where would you like to be while reading these questions?

PB Anywhere, where it’s not raining.

WAN Can you unpack for us the title of your recent project AIRPORTALS and tell us what is it about? What stands for 'air' and what for 'portable' in this neologism?

PB Airportals was an attempt to concentrate on the symbolism and role of airports as the political thresholds. The airport itself may simply be the beginning of a journey. Not a direct portal, but the moment you pass through security, you cross a gateway, shifting into a dimension where your body and information are under a new kind of scrutiny. Echoing the portals found in both: science fiction and magic, I wanted the project to, in some way, twist time. At once, creating a document of the tension, the filled process of border crossing, whilst also capturing some of its conflicting nostalgia and transcendence.

Wave, Marrakesh RKE Airportals, Polly Brown
Welcome, Sapporo CTS Airpotals, Polly Brown

WAN Your project involves passing through the airport security checkpoints. Why this process fascinated you and became a theme for your work? What is the special role of photography in that case?

PB Initially, I stumbled across this theme of checkpoints by accident. I was traveling extensively for another project and carrying a lot of film in my suitcases, which upon developing, I found the markings and waves caused by X-ray damage from airport security scanners. After a few days of mild depression about my ‘ruined’ photos, I started to see the grainy lines as images in themselves, abstract yet poignant. I could chart my journey through the damage, each wave becoming a form of a portrait of each airport. The negatives, like the airports themselves, become non-spaces, simultaneously fixed and yet fluid. This discovery fed into a long seated plan to make a project about airports. I had been fascinated by the architecture and psychogeography of these non-spaces. The X-ray damage seemed to bring together both: medium and subject.

WAN Can you tell us more about the (un)intended tension between simultaneously abstract and documentary methods in your photographs?

PB I had a strict method of passing the unshot film rolls through X-ray security and then, once on the other side, loading the film, where I would shoot one frame to document the airport’s international zone. I liked how the waves and abstracts set the marker for entry and the documentary shots, still carrying the grainy scars of X-ray damage, gave a note to the architecture and design of non-spaces. The documentary photographs act as a type of contextualisation, as an appendix to the moment of crossing.

WAVE, Madrid MAD Airportals, Polly Brown
WAVE, Montreal YUL Airportals, Polly Brown

WAN In AIRPORTALS project you reached for illicit practices when taking photographs with undeveloped film, damaged by X-ray scanners (occasionally shooting on top of the damaged film). How do you feel about documenting the forbidden? Is it your act of resistance against systems of controlling?

PB There is a common thread in my projects of finding and playing with the limits and dictates of institutions, architectures, and systems. It seems to be a recurring theme of capturing what is forbidden, a cheap thrill of breaking the rules yes but also a fascination with how our behaviour is surrounded and dictated by them.

WAN The radiation physically inscribes itself into the film material, so don't here arise the questions whether and how the airport procedure also leaves traces in the human body?

PB Seeing as photography is strictly forbidden at security checkpoints, the snake-like lines on the damaged film, can be seen as the only public documentation allowed of the exact moment of border crossing. The violence inherent of state control and citizenship is refined in this moment of X-ray vandalism – the only trace evidence left of the moment of pure state intrusion on the body. The waves question the violence imparted on the body as it moves through these tension-filled areas of movement and restriction and comments on the invasion of facial recognition technology, body scanners, and information gathering and processing.

Feather, Zurich ZRH Airportals, Polly Brown
Tail, Singapore SIN Airportls, Pollly Brown

WAN In his book 'Non-Places: An Introduction to Anthropology of Supermodernity', Marc Augé argues that non-place, in contradiction to anthropological place, deprives people of their identity. Airports, as one of such examples, allow that human beings remain anonymous. Not only might the place of your production be anonymous, but also the author of your work. How do you see the topic of authorship related to your images, which are created by a machine?

PB I have been really interested in nonhuman photography and a text on the subject by Joanna Zylinska (writer, lecturer, artist, and curator, working in the areas of new technologies and new media, ethics, photography and art – editor's note). She writes about how images have become more and more decoupled from human agency and vision. In the case of Airportals, the X-ray machines become the author and agent of the images, however, when looking at the abstracts they create, I didn’t feel emotionally removed. Instead, the grainy lines reflected back into the void created by security checkpoints secrecy. I felt they reflected back to the body, to the passage, to the processing, and to the human.

Airportals, Polly Brown
Airportals, Polly Brown

WAN Would you agree with the words of writer Ben Eastham for the recent show featuring your photographs in Amsterdam, that “airports are places that we are supposed to forget”? Do airports mean something to you personally, and what are your memories of them?

PB I do agree that they are designed to be seamlessly moved through, with little to distract or differentiate them other than advertisements. They are often homogeneous spaces of carpeted corridors and tinted windows funneling you to your desired destination. For me, they became something different. I started to choose connecting flights that had long layovers, so I could skulk about and take the picture. I find airports simultaneous anonymity and charged authentication fascinating. There is something incredibly loaded in the mundane rows of leather benches and ficus plants that line the corridors, in which you are documented and logged, and judged, and okayed, or restricted. It is in fact, their anonymous design, which hides the true nature of their architecture, one created to separate out, class, document and analyse its inhabitants.

Shine, Palma de Mallorca PMI Airportals, Polly Brown
Sky Light, Brisbane BNE Airportals, Polly Brown

WAN Your other projects were materialized in the form of books. Do you consider any special publication for AIRPORTALS and what are you working on next?

PB We are hoping to publish an accompanying publication to airports for the spring of 2020. Next up, is a series of woven works and tapestries based on a series about swimming pools.


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