The smell of recycled air, thin blankets, and fantastic uniforms are all signs to me that I am going “home.” Though “home” is not necessarily where I was born. At 19 years old, I have created a fluctuating notion of home for myself, with each place representing and holding another part of myself, of my experience. I moved to Lugano, Switzerland, last year for college. I completed my first trip to Europe when I was 18 months old. By age six, I had done the 24-hour voyage from the US to Australia.
All of this traveling was not something foreign in my community; close friends and family were all a part of the vagabond environment. During high school, my classmates and I would swap stories from our trips and create an ever-growing list of where to go next. For me, home is not based on a nation or language, but rather on a sense of shared experience. And for those working in the fantastic uniforms that have brought me around the world and back, life is also balanced in transience. Lucien Samaha’s exhibition at Lombard Freid Projects, The Flight Attendant Years: 1978–1986, captures the camaraderie, friendship, and atmosphere of living in the skies.
Samaha, born in Beirut to a flight-attendant father, was accustomed early to the airline lifestyle. He has fond childhood memories of airline food and plush first class chairs. He began taking pictures in high school, spurred in part by a photography course, and continued doing so throughout his time working for Trans World Airlines, 1978 to 1986, at the Eastman Kodak Company after that, and in the years following. He’s been a meticulous documenter and archivist of his life for decades, a role that’s echoed in his founding of the Arab Image Foundation, a Middle Eastern photography archive. He sees both personal and wider cultural value in his encounters and treats the resulting photographs as both artistic and archival objects.
The exhibition is filled with a sense of intimacy, which is a word Samaha mentions in a recent conversation with Vladimir Gintoff. In the interview, he likens the photos exhibited to family ones, describing his airline training — and by extension, his day-to-day life — as something worth capturing and celebrating. The whole crew was building a familial environment among themselves, stemming from a shared desire for adventure and knowledge.
Group photos such as “Cockpit and Cabin Crews, Flughafen Frankfurt am Main (The Flight Attendant Years)” (1983) are casually composed and beaming with smiles. The crew relaxes and readies for the shot: some people sit on the stairs of the aircraft, one person leans against them, and another sits on someone else. This photograph could have been taken on a family’s porch, if not for the million-dollar aircraft and tarmac. The baggage and jackets are all loosely tossed throughout the foreground, underlining the fact that this is a casual photo. There’s no need to make it completely perfect and posed, since another one could be taken any day of the week. The environment and the uniform are what bring the group together — a family that shares a sense of purpose, or a desire to find their purpose.
Samaha captures the ease of relationships among travelers in “Cat Eyes in the Galley (The Flight Attendant Years)” (c. 1985). For the shot, he used the Olympus XA, which had just been introduced at the time, and whose mobility he sees as influential to his style: he was able to more easily capture intimate moments. When I visited the gallery, the assistant told me that Samaha and the woman were only on this one flight together. Afterwards, they lost contact and never spoke again, until the woman saw an online review of this show. She quickly contacted Samaha and was overjoyed; she had remembered this moment but had been unable to find him. The photograph shows how connections are made among frequent travelers. Although the time together is short, one foregoes some of the initial awkwardness so that playfulness and personality can shine through.
In our increasingly globalized world, individuals are becoming globalized themselves, cultural transients. For these people, whom sociologist David C. Pollock calls Third Culture Kids, a sense of belonging comes from relationships with others of a similar background. I see this idea in both my own life and Samaha’s exhibition. There is a pride, a feeling of home, and a true kinship that travels with these flight attendants, whether they are in the skies or on the ground.
Lucien Samaha: The Flight Attendant Years, 1978–1986 continues at Lombard Freid Projects (518 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 2.
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