Before Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange document-dumped their way to becoming the world’s most famous whistleblowers of the military-government-surveillance complex, Trevor Paglen was quietly mapping out the sites where America carries out its black ops and its secret surveillance. With a telescopic lens and a geographer’s training, he has been able to track down and take gorgeous, if occasionally out-of-focus, large-format photos of the mysterious Area 51 site in Nevada, the airplanes used for “extraordinary-rendition” flights, and U.S. domestic spy satellites.
If his name remains obscure next to those of his more famous compatriots in exile or lockdown, it’s partly because he has never broken a law or violated a confidentiality agreement to come by his knowledge. It may also be that his ghostly depictions of real military installations redacted from United States Geological Survey maps, what Paglen calls his “blank spots on the map,” are not leaked to newspapers or made the subject of TV exposés. Instead, his photos command five-figure prices and are hung on gallery walls of some the most elite outlets for contemporary work, such as the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art.