Trevor Paglen has won the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography prize, for his exhibition The Octopus, which explores contemporary surveillance and was held in Frankfurt, Germany in 2015. This annual prize rewards a photographer for an exhibition or publication which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe during the preceding year. Each iteration of the shortlist varies greatly, some years which offer a fascinating cross section of diverse directions in photography, to others where it can be quite hard to detect how any of the shortlistees were considered to have met the prize’s admittedly ambitious rationale. Previous incarnations have featured the likes of Walid Raad, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, John Stezaker, Sophie Ristelhuber, Richard Mosse, Paul Graham, Mikhael Subotzky, and Zanele Muholi. This year the shortlisted works ranged from Erik Kessel’s ambitious installation of his moving project Unfinished Father, to Tobias Zielony’s The Citzen, a collaborative project with refugee activists based in Berlin. For me though Laura el Tantawy’s In The Shadow of the Pyramids, a self-published photobook on the Egyptian revolution, and Trevor Paglen’s exhibition were always the front runners. My heart hoped that Tantawy’s work would be recognized for its raw power, narrative skill, and continued resonance, my (somewhat cynical) brain on the other hand felt that Paglen would likely be the one to win. Viewing Paglen’s work is a mixed experience for me. His chosen area of investigation, the activities that states get up to when they think their citizens are not looking, are ones which I find important enough to spend a sizeable part of my own time researching them (and many of the issues I am about to discuss are ones I have myself struggled with). What bothers me is that the modes that Paglen chooses to address these worlds seem more often about producing beautiful images than about really explaining or challenging these activities.
Paglen’s work feels like a rather straight form of art documentary, perhaps even indeed it might be considered good old fashioned documentary, an apparent revealing of something which demands to be seen in the age old tradition spanning back to Hine and Riis. In his Limit Telephotography series for example Paglen uses very long lenses to photograph sensitive sites which cannot be more directly approached, sometimes recording subjects which lie a dozen miles or more away, through layers of dust, heat haze and so on. In another series The Other Night Sky he uses long exposure astrophotography to record classified satellites as they pass over head. The resulting photographs in both cases are very beautiful, at times verging on the abstract, and like an abstract image they show almost nothing recognisable at all. We must take his word for it that we are viewing a spy satellite amongst a thousand star trails, and not simply another star, an innocuous civilian satellite or a tumbling piece of space junk. In this respect, and also in his penchant for arcane technical names in his image titles, Paglen’s photographs often remind me of Joan Fontcuberta’s photographic projects. Fontcuberta’s works often take the form of visual practical jokes which drag you in one direction before disclosing that what you are looking at is actually something rather different. In his world what appears at first to be a constellation of stars in a distant reach of space is a moment later revealed to be a cluster of dead insects on his windscreen, as in the series Mu Draconis. I’m not sure how much of a sense of humour Paglen has, but of course this sort of temporal telescoping can be a clever strategy even when the subject is far more serious, and it can be employed to some very thoughtful ends. I think specifically of Sophie Ristelhuber’s Fait, a work which challenges an audience to question what we are being shown, and what exactly the camera is supposed to be revealing in the abstract desert battle spaces of the First Gulf War, where the meaning of scale and distance are obliterated by the cameras lens, whether it is held in the photographer’s hands or mounted in the nose of a guided missile.
Paglen’s photographs are also rather performative, by which I mean the process of making them often feels more interesting than the resulting image or the information they impart. In viewing the Limit Telephotography series for example I find myself wondering of the value (beyond the value of the performance itself) of lugging heavy camera equipment to the top of remote hills when high resolution satellite imagery of these same sites are available to view anytime, anywhere (here for example is Toonpah Test Range Airport, likely the site featured in the photograph above). This of course is not to believe that existing forms of imagery are any more neutral, or necessarily more useful than Paglen’s, and as I know from experience, these types of performances can sometimes be quite effective ways to counter authorities who often fear exactly these types of public spectacle. I suppose what I want is still to have the image before me reveal something I did not know. Part of the problem with that is even if one could reveal these classified sites undistorted by heat haze, or clearly capture a spy satellite as it passes overhead, as has been done by some observers, a photograph tells us little about these things and the world that they belong to. Photographs, particularly single photographs but even sets and series, are incredibly bad at showing the structures, networks, histories, agreements, and more which underlie their subjects. Photographs by dint of their self-contained, enclosed nature, have an unfortunate tendency to appear complete, as if the world depicted within them were as self-contained, self-explanatory, and frankly simple, as the four sides of the photo frame.
Photographs have to be used in clever ways to avoid this tendency, and to remind viewers that is being seen is a small part of a complex set of processes and networks which make up our globalised world. Unfortunately these forms of treatment are often anathema to the sort of laboured, precious presentation that galleries tend to demand that photographs are given (and which may well be an important factor in Deutsche Börse’s collecting rationale, I think an important aspect of this prize and one which is seldom discussed). A useful photograph is not a precious physical object, it is a raw aggregate of data, something waiting to be rendered out in many senses of that phrase. It is phrase in a sentence, a node in a network, a marker on a map. When I view Paglen’s work I see raw material, waiting to have clever things done with it which will say far more about the organisations that interest him than the photographs alone are able to (to some extent this starts to happen in his series on undersea cables, but for me it is only a start). Reworked and deployed in this sort of way I think the work, as well as starting to explain it’s subject much better, would also start to pose a far more direct challenge to these entities. Of course Paglen might not feel that’s his job to do this, which is fair enough, but I consider this to be an essential part of this type of work. Such a challenge is not by any means easy to make, and as I said before I critique Paglen’s work here from a point of common interest since these problems are exactly the same ones which have troubled me about my own work on intelligence gathering. His failings (if you want to call them that) are also my failings, and the failings of a great many other photographers and visual artists working in this area who often remain more heavily weighted towards the role of being an artist than of being a researcher or activist (more thoughts on this soon).
The exception to most of what I’ve said here and by dint of it I think by far the most interesting part of Paglen’s work to date is a completely non-photographic part, indeed it’s a piece which verges on conceptualism for it’s artistic effect. It’s the Autonomy Cube, a Perspex box housing a custom motherboard developed by Jacob Applebaum (until recently a core member of Tor), which acts as an entry point to, and a relay for, the Tor network. Tor acts as a series of relays through which internet connections can be bounced, making it far harder (although by some accounts not impossible) to track the browsing habits and other information of people who use it. Like the wider use of electronic encryption, it has become part of an intriguing reputational battle in the aftermath of the Snowden document leaks, often depicted as an unholy gateway into the dark web and the preferred the tool of child pornographers and criminal hackers seeking to elude the authorities, Tor can just as readily be the means of journalists seeking to avoid surveillance, or ordinary citizens who don’t see why their browsing habits should become corporate property or be collected by dubious government information gathering programs. Intelligence agencies also often deploy the spurious logic that increased use of networks like Tor will require them to use ever more invasive means of information gathering, failing to recognise that it was precisely their development of invasive programs like Prism and Tempora which have led to a growing number of people to employ these technologies. The more relays Tor can call on the stronger the system is, and so by installing this router in a gallery Paglen does finally do something which poses a tangible challenge to the activities of intelligence gathering organizations like the United State’s NSA or Britain’s GCHQ, and even more gloriously he implicates the notoriously apolitical art world in the process at the same time (each time I see the autonomy cube installed, as it also is at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, I wonder with glee what gallery wrangles might have taken place before it was agreed to). By the additional step of inviting gallery visitors to connect to the router and exploit its offer of anonymity, Paglen exposes visitors to what previously might have seem mysterious or even taboo, and implicates them in a deeply modern analogue to older forms of civil disobedience. In the digital age, taking hold of our own data, and enforcing our privacy even against our own governments might be considered one of the final truly subversive, and genuinely challenging acts.