I have an episode in aerial photography that was so peculiar that I felt it deserved to be described with readers. Prepare a cup of coffee, tea, cocoa – whatever your beverage of choice is today – sit back, and allow me to share this tale of semi-humorous human folly (and foolishness) with you.
My closest friend in this current incarnation of my life currently lives in Toronto. I hadn’t visited him in over five years, nor had I captured new images of Toronto since 2011. Alas, a visit was overdue and necessary. We planned my visit to coincide conveniently with Janet Jackson’s “State of the World” concert at the Air Canada Centre (presently the Scotiabank Arena), which would be in early November.
On a side note, the show was quite magnificent in Janet’s unique presentation of entertainment and spectacle. It was the ninth time I had seen her in concert, and she was more amazing in 2017 than she was in 2011, 2008, 2001, 1998, or 1993. She’s one of the few remaining performance artists who can still surpass herself as she progresses. Here are some photos that I captured from Row 3 during the show!
In advance of my travels to Toronto, I made my regular preparations for the self-assigned photography projects to complete during my stay. This included scheduling an aerial photography tour above the city centre. The aerials of Toronto on my website were so outdated that I felt personally embarrassed. Due to perpetual urban development, the face of Toronto’s city centre and waterfront had evolved considerably within a six-year period. Such is the nature of most major, progressive metropolises. (To date, the only city in my portfolio that makes me cringe on account of how much it has changed since my last visit is London. Some neighborhoods have transformed to the extent that I no longer recognize them with any level of ease. I am sorely behind in updating my London cityscapes. Ssshhh!).
As usual, I researched the different helicopter services in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). After I had narrowed down the service I planned to hire, I emailed the company to schedule an appointment. For the purposes of this blog, and for some foreshadowing, we’ll call the company “Cavalier Copters”. Yeah.
I will always be a human being before a photographer. (That line looks strange to read, but please bear with me as there is a point). My parents raised me to give everyone respect. I was raised to give the benefit of the doubt when someone’s behavior or demeanor appears uncouth, unrefined, or inappropriate. As a professional photographer and entrepreneur, I adopt this same train of thought when communicating with clients and business partners. However, in this day and age of overwhelming information technology and insufferable social media, sometimes one can’t help but to raise an eyebrow when something is clearly amiss in correspondence, transactions, or interpersonal interactions. Sometimes we really want to brush aside idiosyncrasies as irrelevant, unimportant, or petty, but in my experience in recent years, I pay attention to them and keep them in the back of my mind. Knowing and recalling specific details in communications can make the difference between life and death nowadays. I am not a commercial airline pilot, but I doubt anyone in that profession would disagree.
When I first corresponded with Cavalier Copters, the person who responded to my request would inevitably become the pilot assigned to my project. Let’s call him Oublie. (If you know your French, you’ll know this is also some casual foreshadowing. If you’re also hip with the lingo of the day, you could also call it delicate shade). If you look to the right, you will see an endearing caricature of my pilot.
Instead of describing the back and forth in correspondence, which started on October 14th, I am going to share the actual email correspondence (below) that gives confirmation, because that’s really what matters when one places order for a service, right? The customer wants to know the time and date of when the service is scheduled to be conducted or performed. Simple, right?
From: Oublie Soudainement
To: TIA International Photography
Date: October 28, 2017
As requested, I'm confirming our photo flight on Friday, November 3rd at
6:00 pm., departing from our facility in the Boonies of Toronto.
We can settle the payment after we return to our hangar.
The first mistake that I made was to assume all the plans were set for the date and time of the aerial photography flight. Right now, you might be thinking, “But it’s written right there in the email. No need to assume.”
Hmmph. Let’s fast forward to the event itself.
What transpired on the afternoon and evening of the flight was beyond anything I could have predicted. Since the location of the helicopter service was far away in the outreaching suburbs of Toronto, I had to rent a car. Otherwise, it would have cost approximately US $300 just to take a cab there (one way). The car rental for less than three days was about US $100. When I went to Toronto Pearson International Airport to collect the car, I wasn’t quite prepared for the rental representative’s reception. She was so unbelievably belligerent and rude, almost to the point of hostility. She had stated that my online reservation didn’t cover my request, and that my debit card could not be accepted. After showing her the boilerplate on the document (Always carry the receipts, folks! Always!) that stated the rental company at the airport did, in fact, accept debit cards, she not only doubled-down in her insolence, but she visibly “quadrupled-down”!
All of a sudden, to her, I was no longer a customer. I was a menace who did not deserve any modicum of decent customer service. I was perplexed because, very naively for years, I thought Canadians were incapable of being so extremely nasty and awful to perfect strangers – let alone customers – but she dispelled that theory immediately. To be fair, in retrospect, the rudest encounters I have ever had with Canadians occurred on this same day, starting with this rental car representative, so perhaps the law of probability just wanted to slightly readjust my idealism*.
Given the current political atmosphere and environment seething through democracies around the world, I was very proud of the fact that I remained calm during the entire episode and didn’t respond with the same vehemence. I just let the representative know, albeit with a louder vocalization than usual, that she should obtain some manners. I left the rental company as she stood there, looking like someone in dire need of an exorcism. So rude.
Fortunately, the debacle of renting a car (doesn’t that sound ridiculous?) to reach the suburbs did not last very long. I had researched that most car rental locations in Toronto didn’t accept debit cards, unless the rental was at the airport. That is why I was confused by how the rental representative for my original reservation was so disgusting about it. I won’t mention the name because it’s a major auto rental franchise, and it doesn’t really deserve the publicity or recognition for its rudeness.
I contemplated my next steps and looked around. I had a choice of seven or eight rental car companies at Pearson International. One of them had to accept debit cards, unless they were all liars. I walked to the rental booth next to the one I had just departed. It was Alamo Car Rental. The representative welcomed me and I explained my situation. Funnily enough, even without a previously booked online reservation, I had a rental car within 10 minutes and I was on my way to “the ‘burbs”. No lambasting. No yelling. No screeching. No disrespect. Alamo was literally next door to the one I had left, and the difference in reception was like night and day.
With that minor ordeal out of the way, I had lost about half an hour in commuting to Cavalier Copters on time. Per our arrangement, the flight was supposed to depart at 6pm, and I had left Pearson at 5pm, believing one hour would be enough time to commute. That was my second mistake, considering it was a late afternoon on a Friday, departing the major international airport serving Canada’s largest city. Rush hour exists in every city, and Toronto was not immune.
The traffic was horrifying. For a person who had not navigated the highways of Toronto in more than 20 years, I didn’t do too badly, as I love maps and knowing where places are. My location was what most would call “the boonies”. It was ***out there***. I was 15 minutes late upon arrival.
Notably, no one from Cavalier had tried to call me a few minutes earlier, which is typically what occurs when a customer does not arrive on time. I figured that Cavalier probably waited, considering its location was not that easy to find.
The detail I have omitted thus far turns out to be very important, considering that in the business of photography, like any business, time is always of the essence for any scheduled event. The weather had been phenomenal that day, meaning it was clear, slightly chilly, but sunny and bright. Those conditions began to yield one of the most vibrant, colorful, stunning, enchanting, and mesmerizing sunsets I had ever seen. These were the perfect, undeniable, quintessential conditions to capture some idyllic cityscape photography, from the air no less. I was hoping that once I arrived at Cavalier, everyone would be ready, and we could just take off now that a quarter hour had been lost. I had scheduled the flight in order to capture the sunset transitioning into the blue hour for some illuminating images of Toronto. At this precise moment, each minute on the ground was a minute of missed opportunity. These are the conditions a photographer hopes for, and when you actually get them, better than you had envisioned, you cannot take advantage of them. It’s like being an inch away from what brings you bliss and you cannot touch it. I can’t stress this particular detail (or emotion) enough.
Alright, let’s continue…
When I entered Cavalier’s building, no one was in the reception area – only a few empty seats and a staircase leading up. It appeared to be a staircase for staff and faculty, not the public, so I did not venture to ascend them. I made enough noise with my entrance that I figured someone would have heard me. I sat down on the available couch next to me, waiting apprehensively, hoping Oublie or someone would come down enthusiastically to do some quick introductions and literally get the show off the road and into the air. That didn’t happen. As I stared with jarring incredulity at the rich hues of blues, reds, yellows, pink, and orange in the sky, I started to get a bit jittery. Suddenly, I heard someone coming down the steps, a soft pat-pat-pat sound.
A middle-aged brunette greeted me. When I introduced myself and my company name regarding my appointment at 6pm, her expression changed from polite reception to uncomfortable recollection – in other words, visible confusion. I told her that I had scheduled a one-hour flight with Oublie on this day, at this time, and I was only 15 minutes late due to traffic from Pearson. What she said next was the prelude to my second exercise that day in demonstrating incredible restraint from furious ire: “We never heard from you, so we never scheduled a flight for this evening.”
My body went cold while, simultaneously, I felt like a bomb exploding during the first few milliseconds after detonation.
I said, straining a smile, “That’s not possible.” I looked at her in disbelief, hoping she would follow that statement with a “Just kidding” or “I’m just giving you a hard time.” Nope. She really did look at me as though I should not be standing in front of her with Ananda (my camera) around my neck ready to take to the skies. I told her that I was from Seattle, had been emailing with Oublie for nearly a month, and he had confirmed an aerial photography flight for 6pm TODAY. She said she would check her records, and returned to ascend the stairway – pat-pat-pat. About five minutes later, she re-emerged, asking if I could reschedule for Sunday evening. (The metaphoric bomb in my body continued to unravel viciously). I told her that at the time she was suggesting, I was scheduled to unpack my bags back at home in Seattle. I was trying very hard to comprehend this bizarre display of obliviousness and lack of preparedness. She said she would check with Oublie himself as he had not left Cavalier for the evening. She went back up the stairs again – pat-pat-pat.
At this point, I was seething with annoyance. It was almost 6:30pm, and the blue hour hues of the evening sky were gradually dissipating with the oncoming of night. Whatever chance there was to capture Toronto’s downtown core with those tremendously vivid colors was gone now, whether this flight happened or not. My consternation about how this appointment was completely off the radar increased by the second. For a few moments, I had to ask myself if I had imagined the whole exchange with Oublie the previous month. I quickly accessed my phone and referenced my Gmail account to find the exchange. Surely enough, the email stated that November 3rd at 6pm was the date of service. I winced. What the hell was going on?
At that point, a slower, heavier set of steps descended the stairwell – thump-thump-thump. An older, very tall fellow with glasses and silver-white hair stood before me and introduced himself as Oublie. Upon first appearance, he looked like a humble, unassuming individual. He also had an aloofness about him that I couldn’t figure out immediately. He asked me what had happened. Aghast, I asked him the same question in return. I repeated the same thing I told the “pat-pat-pat” lady. I also explained that rescheduling for Sunday was unacceptable and that we agreed to meet today at this time. Oublie’s facial expression remained expressionless, but he appeared to double-down on his stance, stating I never called to confirm the appointment, so he just assumed I was not coming. In other words, without directly saying it, he had made this situation my fault.
I was livid, and I decided to show it now. (The bomb no longer had a chance of containment).
I looked at Oublie and told him that this is not how helicopter companies provide service to customers. I emphasized that it took a lot of effort to set this up and travel from Seattle, more than 2,000 miles away, to reach his location, which was not easy. At the same time, my lingering irritation from the previous encounter with the idiotic representative at the first car rental office began seeping into my psyche again. I couldn’t grasp this lack of accountability for poor service with no ownership. The fact that Oublie tried to turn the tables around as though I overlooked something infuriated me. My tone wasn’t hostile, but it was resentful and reproachful. After about 10 minutes of going back and forth, he asked me if I still wanted to do the flight. I said, “Yes, absolutely. I didn’t come all this way just to stand here.”
Sullenly, Oublie said it would take about 10 minutes to get the helicopter started and that I should follow him to the hangar where the helicopters were stored. Now 6:45pm, I resolved that I would have to settle for solely night images of the city. I had to get something out of this mess. Fortunately, a crystal-clear day had yielded a crystal-clear night, so it wouldn’t be a total loss of what I had originally planned, even though I was still upset about how this situation had been handled.
While Oublie and one of his assistants prepared the helicopter, I looked at my surroundings. The whole mood of Cavalier Copters seemed lifeless and inert, and the fact that I was making these guys do something that was previously scheduled to occur (at least, on my schedule) seemed to generate their own resentment towards me. I could feel it, but I did not care. I was paying them for a service, and it felt, in turn, as though I was punishing them for their own incompetence.
A few minutes later, the “pat-pat-pat” lady approached me in the garage, asking for my credit card to pay for the flight. She made a quip that since I was from the States, the American dollar was on my side, meaning the value of the flight would be a loss to them in Canadian dollars. I responded flatly that it wasn’t that significant of a difference. When I proceeded to ask her if Oublie was always so cavalier, it was then her turn to show umbrage. Her eyes widened and she said, very reproachfully, that I should not give Oublie a hard time because he had had a long day and had so many other people to take on flights. In response, I said that may be true, but I was also supposed to be one of those customers whom he seemed to have completely forgotten. I said there was no excuse for that because I was a customer as well. So much for “the customer is always right” motto.
Once again, I used my cellphone to retrieve the email conversation I had had with Oublie. Right now, at this moment, Oublie was only a few feet away from me, not in the country next door. I approached him and asked him to look at the screen of my phone. I asked, “This is you, right? There isn’t another person by this same name here. Can you see your confirmation of my request? That’s signed by you, right? That’s your name, is it not? I don’t think I’m losing my mind here.”
He glanced through it, and he showed a very agonized expression as I drilled the point. It was an expression that revealed, to me, that he was hurt by what I was saying, even though every irritated word was true. He repeated that the helicopter would be ready shortly, so the argument didn’t need to continue. That was the first thing he had said with which I agreed. I just said, “OK.” Some form of empathy must have reignited within me because his expression made me think that maybe – just maybe – Oublie had completely forgotten. Maybe he truly wasn’t feeling well, or something else had happened. Nevertheless, at that point, something told me to stop badgering him about his own mistake. I also noticed that Oublie limped when he walked.
He could have apologized. That is one thing about me with arguments, particularly if I’ve made my case clearly. If the other party would just own what he or she did, and apologize, I would drop the whole matter, and move on. If I am accused of wrongdoing, and I see that, yes, in fact, what I did was wrong or hurtful, I would apologize. Owning responsibility or being held accountable for any bad behavior appears to be anathema to a lot of people these days, which is unfortunate. Had Oublie just apologized from the start, instead of accusing me of not confirming with him, I would have let it go. However, in this particular case, I had to stand firm and call out the rubbish because the entire situation was exactly that – pure rubbish.
By the time we took off, it was shortly after 7pm, an hour late. Sheepishly, Oublie knew I was very upset, so our correspondence through the microphones inside the helicopter was rather stiff and downright awkward. (Keep in mind, on most of my other aerial excursions, this is usually the time when conversation between pilot and photographer is more relaxed, jovial, and collegiate). I had explained the locations and angles I wanted to capture, and Oublie was familiar with my requests.
Once in the air, with cold winds blowing around me (as the door was removed on my side), I started to relax, especially as we approached the brilliant lights of downtown Toronto and the CN Tower.
I was in my element now as an aerial photographer. There was no need to be angry anymore. I didn’t want to be irritated throughout the flight. I still wanted to be grateful for this occasion and have an enjoyable experience doing what I loved to do. As I began capturing cityscapes of Toronto, we could see the full moon brightly illuminating Lake Ontario. It was not the blue hour ambiance, as originally anticipated, but the moonlit atmosphere was an unexpected, attractive alternative.
Oublie began to ask questions about elevation, distance, and angle, to which I answered calmly and politely, because there was truly no more need to be upset anymore. We were in the air, and I was capturing my cityscapes in grand TIA fashion. In fact, from his tone, it seemed as though Oublie was trying to help me by his way of offering suggestions for perspectives, which I always found useful from pilots. The tension in the helicopter began to ease as we circled the Harbourfront neighborhood and the financial district. I was enthralled by the beauty of the city. The clarity of the night was most advantageous for my photography as well. The cold wind blowing through me didn’t bother me at all. That was part of the experience. Oublie explained how he could position the helicopter so I could achieve some shots of the moon above the city and the lake. He asked if I would like that. I responded that I would indeed. The rest of our correspondence continued like that until the project was completed and we returned to Cavalier Copters in the boonies.
Once on the ground, a few minutes after the propeller stopped, I dismounted the helicopter, thanked Oublie, and started walking towards the parking lot. Oublie called after me and did what I didn’t expect. He apologized for his earlier behavior when I had arrived. He said that he felt terribly that he had forgotten and that he should have paid attention to our correspondence via email.
Hold on…did he just…???
He owned his mistake. I couldn’t believe it. There are people who still know how to own their mistakes after all.
I smiled and said that it was all in the past. Besides, he had helped me to accumulate some excellent aerial photographs. “I will not return to Seattle unhappy after this evening,” I told him. He smiled, nodded, and headed back towards the hangar as I made my way back to the city, determined to make the best out of my remaining 36 hours in Toronto.