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Documenting Government Secrecy Through Fine Art Photography

Turning top secret organizations and classified locations into fine art inspiration.

by Zach Sokol
Dec 5 2013, 5:12pm

Taking photographs of secret government bases sounds complicated enough, but imagine capturing images of hidden places from over 30 miles away. Enter Trevor Paglen, an artist, geographer, and counter-surveillance researcher.

It's common knowledge at this point that the government has been engaged with various surveillance programs and secret organizations. There have been a litany of articles written and activism efforts attempted in hopes of countering the government's lack of transparency. Few, though, have used art as a medium to explore these monolithic-yet-mysterious systems and programs.

Even fewer individuals have used government surveillance institutions and programs as a platform to investigate an even bigger and broader topic: the invisible. 

Paglen takes non-subjects like hidden objects, secret ideas, ghostly organizations, and simultaneously dissects and spotlights them with his camera. Think of a place like Area 51, especially because he has literally taken pictures of the Groom Lake lair of mystery: 

[Area 51] Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center, Groom Lake, NV Distance approx. 26 miles, 2008 

"I've been interested in the question of the visible and the invisible for a very long time," Paglen told The Creators Project in our documentary on the artist, which can be watched above. "What happens when you push an image to the point where it breaks, when you push vision to the point where it collapses?"

Paglen's pictures over the last decade have dealt with the ephemeral, the intangible, the intersection of visible and invisible and how it applies to government secrecy. The intro to one of Paglen's book, Covert Operations And Classified Landscapes, notes that "invisibility and secrecy have been more than a strategy or a mode of operation for the military and the CIA for the past six decades; they have been its essence." 

His work has comprehensively described the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, delved into black projects by examining unit patches and insignia created for top-secret programs, captured government satellites on film as they (feasibly) photographed him, and documented secret military bases using telescopic tools.

In contrast of his career photographing secret places from an incredible distance, Paglen's next project is an upclose-and-macro study of a very well-known whistleblower. The photographer has been looking at the courtroom sketches drawn during the Bradley Manning trial (a media-free zone) as if the camera was a microscope, and the pencil marks were science-informing organisms.

On one level, these projects are activist efforts, but Paglen noted that he's "not interested in forcing a certain kind of confrontation."

Paglen is not just counter-surveillance activist, though. His art is less about unveiling secrets than it is an evocative study of places and objects that are real, but are invisible to almost everyone in the world.

They Watch the Moon, 2010

On the other hand, he's also scrutinizing broad terms we use every day that may not be real or concrete: "When we're talking about secrecy and we're talking about democracy, we're talking about ideal forms that don't exist," said Paglen, channelling concepts from Plato.

Taking photographs of covert government institutions like the NSA and military bases may be his way of highlighting that democracy is abstract, while invisible privacy invasion and mysterious organizations are concrete.

"Everything in the world--whether it's a secret airplane or secret satellite--has to intersect the visible world at some point," he told us. "With photographing the invisible, it's about identifying where those boundaries and intersections may be."

Through exhausting research and patience (taking a photograph from many miles away is no easy task), Paglen finds those boundaries and intersections and makes them... beautiful. Or, at least, he makes extremely abstract concepts more digestible. 

His long-distance, blurry photos of secret military bases have been compared to impressionistic paintings. Stills such as "Keyhole Improved Crystal From Glacier Point," however, look like re-creations of Ansel Adams' famous landscapes, yet they include government satellites surging through the skyline. 

Keyhole Improved Crystal From Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008

There are innumerable conversations about the physical embodiments of "invisible" structures and systems like the NSA. Everyone wants to understand and see the gears and levers of this very real, but also very phantasmic organization. With Paglen's work, though, he inspires viewers to think not just about the secret organizations, but about the grander, metaphysical implications of what it means to be a walking ghost in 2013. 

Watch our documentary on Paglen above, but continue reading to take a look back at his past projects. Very few can make government secrecy and seemingly-invisible objects look so tasteful.

Nine Reconnaissance Satellites over the Sonora Pass, 2008 

 Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground/Dugway; UT/Distance approx. 42 miles; 11:17 a.m., 2006 

Paglen, shooting with his telescopic camera 

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal, Las Vegas, Nevada; Distance ~ 1 mile, 10:44pm, 2007 

Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada, 2007