If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it — a glimpse of color between the old-fashion brick arches of the abandoned Gloucester Road Station platform as you’re on your morning commute. If your train slowed down as you passed, you’d be struck by the strange sight outside your window as if, for a moment, you were zipping by the idyllic English countryside instead of London Tube tunnels. As your eyes retreat further into the vista, behind the rolling hills and bucolic cottages, you notice a cluster of unusual, dome-like shapes on the horizon. These structures belong to the United States government, used for top-secret, intelligence-gathering operations.
Trevor Paglen’s 2014 photography installation, An English Landscape (American Surveillance Base near Harrogate, Yorkshire), brings the invisible world of government data collection to the public eye. The image is near-Arcadian, resembling the harmonious English landscape tradition of artists such as Turner, Constable, and Gainsborough, but the softened colors are not purely for artistic effect. Given top-secret nature of the surveillance facility, Paglen had to shoot the photograph with a telephoto lens from as close as he could get to the heavily guarded site (nearly 4 miles away), blurring the image’s quality. Even the act of viewing the installation — just a glimpse from the moving train — is one of surveillance, seeing something you’re not supposed to. If you stand on the platform, this unsettling effect is amplified by numerous CCTV cameras pointing down at you from above. You watch, aware that someone is watching you.
Since Edward Snowden first leaked information on the NSA’s data collection and communications monitoring program, PRISM, back in 2013, privacy and the mass surveillance power of government agencies have become contentious subjects in our society. While the U.S. government spends billions of dollars each year on surveillance strategies like wiretapping and computer monitoring, it remains unclear how much access they have to citizens’ private data, how long these programs are used, what these programs are used for exactly, and how often are civilians caught in the cross-hairs during the monitoring of foreigners’ communication. Although these powers have been authorized by Congress, many civilians fear that these organizations are transgressing legal boundaries and that agencies, like the NSA, are lying about the extent of their monitoring programs and how much data they collect from Americans.
“[Images] can only draw attention to things and help people learn how to see,” Paglen said at the installation’s opening. But how exactly do you visualize the complicated topic of mass surveillance? How do you portray these covert, digital operations when so little quantified data exists on these programs to articulate in the first place?
Paglen brings these difficult unknowns to the landscape. These images become sites where these mysterious government technologies become physically present in our world, quite literally inscribed into our geographical knowledge through his detailed captions. His ongoing series, Limit Telephotography, uncovers this unseen terrain of mass surveillance. Paglen traveled to different classified military bases across the U.S., tucked away in the remotest parts of the country. These sites are completely inaccessible, with dozens of miles buffering these restricted areas from civilians. To even catch a glimpse of these top-secret bases, he had to use high power telescopes originally designed for astro-photography to cut through the Earth’s thick atmosphere. “In some ways,” he writes on his website, “it is easier to photograph the depths of the solar system than it is to photograph the recesses of the military-industrial complex.” One of his nighttime photographs, “Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center #2, Groom Lake, NV”, is just a seam of golden light, barely discernible as it sits tucked inside the remote desert hills. In order to reach this thin lip of an image, Paglen had to be nearly 26 miles away on the other side of the camera lens.
Paglen’s work disrupts the tradition of landscapes. He visualizes a geography composed of unconventional, hidden forces. “Open Hangar, Cactus Flats, NV, Distance ~ 18 miles, 10:04 a.m” is so far away that it is reduced to abstract smears of structure and sky. These are not familiar the landscapes of centuries past, peaceful and inviting, Paglen’s technique reminds us. If the viewer were to look at the image from afar, “National Reconnaissance Office Ground Station (ADF-SW) Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico” is a delicate balance of rolling green hills and the bright blue of a summer sky, but upon closer inspection, the zoomed-in image is harsh and unwelcoming.
In recent weeks, newspaper headlines have moved from one leak to another, controversies continue to arise from the spilling of secrets. Just a handful of days ago, Chelsea Manning, imprisoned for leaking classified government information, was released from prison. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Paglen’s photographs appear to us on the precipice of abstraction. Clusters of facility-forms leak and blur into each other, smudged complications of institutions renowned for their regimented construction. These radical landscape photographs are nearly-illegal in their creation, serene only through inaccessibility. Paglen pushes the limits of photography, producing images that are both beautiful and sinister. His images are designed to unsettle and uncover. The viewer must be confronted with the history of global mass surveillance now that these isolated spaces have become demystified, articulated into something recognizable. Through his extreme landscapes, Trevor Paglan gives us the right tools to see.