When the floods in Thailand appeared in the news recently, my friends and colleagues recommended that I stay away. But how could I? It was only a 4.5 hour flight from China (where I would be attending the Lishui International Photography Festival November 5 – 9) and photographing the Bangkok (BKK) air traffic control tower at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport was a high priority on my “to do” list. Actually, the highest. It is the tallest freestanding air traffic control tower in the world at 132.2 meters (434 feet) and a major tower to include in my upcoming book and Smithsonian exhibition The Art of the Airport Tower.
Getting to the various locations to photograph airport towers is only part of the job. First I must obtain official access to photograph each tower. For towers in the United States, I have a process in place with the FAA for approval. International access is another story. However, so far, so good with towers now completed in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy.
But after several weeks of unanswered e-mails to different airport authorities at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport, I became worried and turned to a personal contact in Bangkok, my childhood pen pal. As pen pals, Choedkrid “Jon” and I had exchanged letters throughout high school, and we met once during his visit to the United States in 1989. We had reconnected earlier this year on Facebook and I found that he works for Thai Airways, quite coincidentally.
So, “Jon” made the calls for me and forwarded my requests to the proper authorities, which resulted in an official letter of permission – my golden ticket. The BKK tower is a gigantic beauty, the weather was great for shooting, and I had a perfect photography session.
Photographing airport towers all over the world is an ambitious undertaking. Working in partnership with the Museum’s Development Office, we have created sponsorship opportunities that would open up the possibility of traveling to and highlighting as many of these historic landmarks as possible.
And about those floods — Jon provided me with a close-up view from a military-style truck that drove through the flooded streets. My feet stayed dry as I photographed the flood damage below. I watched people navigate their way in trucks and boats on the newly formed waterways. Some on foot were partly submerged. The citizens of Bangkok helped each other and readily adapted to new transportation and relocation adjustments in order to continue with their daily business routines. I brought back from this recent trip not only new photographs for the Art of the Airport Tower, but a reconnection to an old friend and the utmost respect for a culture that stood tall in the face of a national crisis.
Carolyn Russo is a museum specialist/photographer in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.