Business Traveller

Flight attendant photographs behind the scenes of Virgin America

Francesca Street, CNN Updated 19th September 2017
(CNN) — Virgin America air steward and arts graduate Molly Choma started working for the popular airline straight out of college.
But the decision to take to the skies didn't mean putting her creative talents to bed -- far from it. For the past nine years, Choma has been photographing behind-the-scenes shots of her Virgin America colleagues as they criss-cross the skies.
The photo series -- playfully hashtagged #TheSecretLifeOfVirgins on Instagram and Facebook -- has taken off. Using the difficult lighting and the confined space to her advantage, Choma takes atmospheric and striking photographs, capturing the moments the public don't normally see.
What started as a personal passion project has lead to an array of opportunities for Choma. Come January, she'll be heading to the 2018 Winter Olympics to photograph the USA Bobsled and Skeleton team -- and she's been photographing the Nigerian Bobsled team.

Family heritage

Choma photographs her colleagues on board the plane.
Choma photographs her colleagues on board the plane.
Courtesy Molly choma photography
"There was always a camera around my house," Choma tells CNN Travel. "My mom wasn't a photographer, but she always had a camera and I always liked to play with it. She would enroll me in little photography classes at rec centers."
Choma takes after her mother in more ways than one.
"My mom was also a flight attendant," says Choma. "She used to work for Pacific Southwest Airlines -- and it was that cool, hot pink, retro era of flight attendants -- but there are no pictures of it!"
San Francisco-native Choma says she "fell into" flight attending.
"I was applying to jobs in Hong Kong and New York, all kinds of things that would take me far away," she says. "I just wanted to experience something different."
Choma fell into flight attending, but now she loves it.
Choma fell into flight attending, but now she loves it.
Courtesy Molly choma photography
Choma initially saw Virgin as a stepping stone, hoping to return to an arts career post-Recession.
"It was a really bad time to graduate with an art degree," she recalls. "When I started at Virgin I thought it would be two years, and I didn't even tell anyone what I was doing, because I felt like I needed to be a 'true artist' or something like that. So now it's just kind of ironic that it's come a little bit full circle in that regard."
When she began air stewarding, Choma remembered her mother's career -- and the lack of photographs documenting her travels. Choma wanted her colleagues' families to have snapshots of this period of their lives -- so she decided to start taking her camera to work.
"I like taking pictures of my friends and the thought that their kids will have pictures of them," Choma says.

Recording history

Choma captures behind the scenes at Virgin America.
Choma captures behind the scenes at Virgin America.
Courtesy Molly choma photography
Choma and her colleagues are close and she loves photographing the moments they share.
"We've grown up together," Choma says. "We've gone through breakups and marriages, deaths in the family, babies -- and with this job you have to show up to work no matter what."
Capturing this friendship on camera remains important to Choma -- but her project took on a new angle -- and a sense of urgency -- after Alaska Airlines announced in March 2017 that it had purchased Virgin America.
Come 2019, the iconic airline will be no more.
"When our airline got purchased it just kind of drove it home for me to preserve the culture that we grew up with," says Choma.
"We are like a family, so when they made the announcement that it was going to dissolve into nothing, it became kind of a priority to bring my camera to work and preserve images before it's gone."

Challenging conditions

Choma has mastered photographing in confined spaces.
Courtesy Molly choma photography
Photographing on board a moving plane is no mean feat -- it took time for Choma to get the high quality images she records today.
"It's definitely been a learning curve," she says. "It's a very small dark space, with really limited light."
Choma -- who brings her professional-grade camera on board in her lunch bag ("I don't actually have room for lunch anymore") -- has learned to love these difficult conditions.
"The challenges are really fun," she says. "I only have the camera, I don't bring lighting or anything like that, so it's just really learning how to take advantage of the light that is there, rather than the light that isn't."
Life on board a plane is also notoriously unpredictable.
"Sometimes I'd have a perfect shot, and then we'd hit turbulence and then it would just have to wait," she recalls. "So there's all these extra factors too!"
"And obviously you don't want to shoot the public," she adds, "So we'd be ready for the shoot and someone would come by to use the rest room, and you'd have to pause."
Many of the published photographs are candid moments of the stewards in-situ -- but sometimes Choma asks her colleagues to recreate scenes she spotted earlier in the flight.
"A lot of it is taking opportunities [to photograph] when things are a little bit slower, based on things that are happening when it's a lot faster," Choma explains.

Success story

Choma also worked at Virgin's HQ for two years.
Choma also worked at Virgin's HQ for two years.
Courtesy Molly choma photography
A few years ago Choma's photography caught the eye of the big guns at Virgin -- and she spent two years working in the company's headquarters, honing her craft taking photographs for the company.
"I loved what I learned at the headquarters," Choma says. "But when you're a flight attendant, you have a flexible schedule and what I really wanted to do was a lot more travel photography."
Choma returned to flying -- and to her impromptu in-flight photography.
Meanwhile, in her spare time, she has been working up an impressive portfolio of travel and sport photography.
"The flight benefits and the work schedule has lead me to pursue these opportunities that I would never have thought I'd be so passionate about," says Choma.

Public reaction

Being an air steward involves being able to put on a smile during a crisis.
Being an air steward involves being able to put on a smile during a crisis.
Courtesy Molly choma photography
Surprisingly, Choma says no passenger has ever asked her why she is taking photographs.
"I can tell that people notice that I'm carrying a large camera along the aisle, rather than say, a ginger ale or something!" she says. "But no one has ever asked what I'm doing."
Air stewards have to be ready to deal with anything that comes their way -- but Choma says that doesn't mean they can't have fun.
The photographer is a big fan of the viral air steward videos that have taken off on social media.
"It reminds me of so many of my friends," she says. "The guy doing the Britney Spears one was so cute. If people only knew that we were dancing to Britney Spears while we were waiting for the front tire to get fixed or something, maybe they would join in on the fun too!"
This ability to find the humor in the everyday -- and to put on a smile in a crisis -- defines life as an air steward. It's these little moments that Choma hopes she can capture for posterity.
"It just goes back to being a family and making the best of bad situations," she says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Choma was affiliated with the Nigerian bobsled team. She is affiliated with the USA bobsled and skeleton teams but has been documenting the Nigerian team in her spare time.