An interview with a photographer who shoots CIA ‘black sites’ and covert satellites.
Opening Architecture of Fear. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33
I suspect that there are very few places left on this planet that haven’t been discovered by intrepid explorers. Yet, Trevor Paglen has found and investigated territories that still need to be documented and exposed to the world. If you’ve never seen his photographs, I suggest you swing by the Z33 House for Contemporary Art Center in Hasselt, Belgium. They are part of Architecture of Fear, an exhibition that examines how feelings of fear pervade our daily life.
Trevor Paglen, Large Hangars and Fuel Storage. Tonopah Test Range, NV. Distance ~ 18 miles
For his Limit Telephotography series, Paglen used high powered telescopes to picture the “black” sites, a series of secret locations operated by the CIA. Often outside of U.S. territory and legal jurisdiction, these locations do not officially exist, they range from American torture camps in Afghanistan to front companies running airlines whose purpose is to covertly move suspects around.
Trevor Paglen, Chemical and Biological Proving Ground No 2, 2006, Dugway, UT
Paradoxically Paglen’s images deepen the secrecy of their subject rather than uncover it. Limit-telephotography most closely resembles astrophotography, a technique that astronomers use to photograph objects that might be trillions of miles from Earth. Paglen’s subjects are much closer but also even more difficult to photograph. To physical distance, one has indeed to add the obstacle of informational concealment.
Trevor Paglen, LACROSSE ONYX II, from The Other Night Sky
The other photos the artist is showing at Z33 are part of The Other Night Sky which tracks and documents classified American satellites in Earth orbit. With the help of a network of amateur “satellite observers” and of a specially designed software model able to describe the orbital motion of classified spacecraft, Paglen could calculate the position and timing of overhead reconnaissance satellite transits. He would then photograph their passage using telescopes and large-format cameras.
Trevor Paglen, Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada, 2007
I’ve seen his works in numerous contexts, from new media art festivals to activist conferences and contemporary art exhibitions. However, the more you see Paglen’s work, the more questions you want to ask him. I’ve finally decided to catch up with him and interviewed him via skype for the upcoming Z33 catalogue.
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Régine Debatty is the creator of the ‘We Make Money Not Art’ blog and an art show curator. She has also spoken at several conferences and festivals about the way artists, hackers and interaction designers (mis)use technology. Learn more about Régine Debatty.