Trevor Paglen is a man on a mission and it is one that reminds us that what makes any work of photography relevant, interesting, important or even significant, are the ideas and intentions that inform it. Anything else is merely gazing at pretty pictures.
Paglen has spent the greater part of the last decade photographing, tracking, highlighting and revealing the dark, illegal, horror-ridden underbelly of the great American ‘Global War Against Terror’ (GWAT). Paglen is a 35-year-old artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who holds both a B.A. (religious studies, 1998) and a Ph.D. (geography, 2008) from Cal, as well as an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s currently a researcher at Berkeley.
A review of his work tells us that:
…his work traces the seam line between the government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Besides the spy satellites, which he captures arcing across the night sky in lush art prints, Paglen has photographed classified air bases; tracked down CIA cover names and displayed them on gallery walls; and compiled a book full of patches from Pentagon black-ops units. It’s called I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me. The patches—in some cases, the only evidence that the programs even exist—feature an absurd gallery of aliens, reapers, and wizards along with perverse accompanying mottos. One from the stealth bomber wing reads Gustatus Similis Pullus, Latin for “tastes like chicken.”
His most recent work, Invisible, (thanks to Conscientious) recently released by Aperture books, is based on his eight year documentation of secret CIA flights and ‘black sites’ that the government does not want us to know about. It reveals the secret military sites, but also, and perhaps most importantly, his works reveal the many who have been ‘disappeared’ in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘our liberties’. In an installation project called ‘Missing Persons’, Paglen lays out the names of the missing. As the exhibition description points out:
Since the mid 1990s, the CIA has spearheaded a covert program to kidnap suspected terrorists from all over the world. These people are then brought to a network of secret CIA-operated prisons, called “black sites,” where they are routinely tortured. The CIA calls this the “extraordinary rendition” program.
People taken to these secret prisons are effectively “disappeared”: there are no public records of their captivity, their identities are kept secret, and they are prohibited from communicating with the outside world. Among CIA operatives, they are called “ghost detainees.”
The locations of these black sites, known by code-names such as “Salt Pit” and “Bright Light,” are some of the CIA’s deepest secrets.
To capture and subsequently transport these ghost detainees, the CIA uses a fleet of unmarked airplanes. These airplanes are owned by intricate networks of front companies whose boards of directors are non-existent people. Missing Persons is a collection of their signatures culled from business records, aircraft registrations, and corporate filings.
He has also documented our ‘black site’ – prisons and torture centers in Afghanistan for example, CIA’s secret flights and also co-authored a book called Torture Taxi: On The Trial Of CIA’s Rendition Flights
You can even track his most recent investigations on his blog. This is critical work, and it is the work of a man who understands the fundamentals of democratic engagement and dissent. He understands that there are forces that claim to ‘defend’ our republic but are in fact engaged in activities that undermine it. It draws our eyes and mind towards basic structures of power and repression that underpin modern ‘democracies’ and the ‘background noise’ of control and violence that is believed essential for sustaining it.
For me personally, such works do something else very important - they highlight the shallowness of what passes for ‘photojournalism’ in our modern world. They remind us how most photojournalists prefer to pander in the simple, the obvious and the conventional, while never engaging in the complex and crucual. Our newspapers and photographers have, either out of convenience, laziness or sheer careerism, chosen to veil the GWAT behind beautifully rendered and largely distracting projects produced from the confines of embedded positions on the front line.
Conventional photojournalism – with its insistent focus on combat and consequences – has gone a long way towards allowing us to forget that we, the United States of America, is in an illegal and brutal military occupation of two nations whose inhabitants continue to fight and resist our presence there through guns, politics and a large-scale, popular rejection of our legitimacy and relevance. The hundreds of thousands of troops that are needed to maintain these post-occupation pathologies called Iraq and Afghanistan reflect our failure, and the vast chasm that exists between the region’s population and our imagined ideas of our role and impact in the region. These projects bring us to ‘the combat’ – the fireworks, and stun our minds into unthinking simplicities while distracting us from the general un-sustainability, and injustice of the wars themselves. They ensure that the hard political questions, the difficult presumptions and prejudices that assume that we have a right to be there, are not seen or heard. They avoid the ugly realities as they have manifest themselves at home (renditions, tortures, illegal detentions, immigrant sweeps, racial discrimination, xenophobia, impoverishment etc.) and abroad (mass killings, torture, the administration of the occupation, civilian displacement, dispossession, destruction of societies and culture, corruption, drugs, NGO culture of excess etc.)
Our embedded photographers and journalists – many celebrated with awards and celebrity screenings at major film festivals, keep coming back to convince us that they have ‘seen’ the war, and that it has been ‘reported’ it. Some seem so determined to convince us the that the ‘embedded’ program is without constraints that their protests are starting to sound a bit too desperate, a bit too defensive and frankly a bit too insulting. These photographer – award winners, movie makers and celebrities, are working too hard to hide from us the fact that ‘embedding’ no matter how ‘free’ and ‘friendly’ hides the truth, obfuscates the horrors and does not allow you to call yourself a ‘reporter. I don’t care how many Sundance Awards they bring back, they are merely propagandist because they challenge nothing, question nothing, confront nothing and resist nothing. It is not physical courage the defines journalism, but moral and intellectual courage.
And the real measure of the ‘propaganda’ nature of such works is the fact that the Afghan and the Iraqi has been completely erased from our minds and eye. What is worse, they have been erased from our moral equation. They do not exist. The injustices inflicted on them are not worthy of consideration. Their dead are not counted. Their humiliations irrelevant. Their blood does not run. They are merely objects upon which we act and not humans struggling to regain control of their own lives and futures. And resisting. We obfuscate their motives and humanity behind words like ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ so as to make it easier for us to justify indiscriminate killings and murder. Front page stories about the ‘liberation of their women’ act as justifications for acts of mass murder, bombing of civilians, pre-emptive killings, summary arrests, terrorizing of civilian populations in order to control them, construction of barriers/walls, torture and injustice that we carry out with impunity. Our righteousness needs to be fed, and our photographers and journalists have been happily doing that. We are constantly being shown as ‘saving’, ‘helping’, ‘aiding’, ‘educating’, ‘liberating’ the Afghan or the Iraqi and its all done with the same desperation with which the dark side is erased. Its not as if they are not confronting, resisting, speaking, challenging, rejecting, fighting, demanding, and defending. It is we who are not listening, or simply not allowing their voices and acts to be represented to others like us.
But it’s not just the embedded works. Another set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts. Most all the projects concentrate on American soldiers, – with parallel works being produced in the UK, Germany, Sweden or elsewhere from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries, and assiduously avoid any revelation of anything called an Iraqi or an Afghani.
The fact remains that hundreds if not thousands of Afghani civilians are dying each year in our war. Hundreds of thousands died as a direct result of our invasion of Iraq. To say nothing of the near million who may have died as a result of our sanctions against the country. The erasures of these people are reflected in the ridiculous ‘outrage’ that has been unleashed because of the leaking of CIA Afghan logs. The Afghan War Logs reveal the thousands of civilians that have been killed in our war there but rather than be outraged by this horror, we are outraged that people now know! We are outraged at the leak, not the realities and brutalities the leaks reveal.
The same misguided outrage has been targeted against WikiLeaks that has been quietly revealing the realities we so wish to forget. Few things were amusing (facetious comment, people!) than Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad (they have one!) and current CIA counter-terror director, writing for Al-Jazeera a piece called “US Needs Lesson in ‘Secret-Keeping’”. I can ask what a CIA director is doing writing for this network, but I will ask why he felt he had to make such an effort to suggest that the logs reveal nothing. He is wrong; they reveal the incompetence and sheer callous disregard for the civilians that is the base idea of this military operation in Afghanistan, and it reveals the failure of the American military machine to make any real progress anywhere within the country. They reveal a military occupation over a resistant population in progress. They reveal us as jackboot occupiers and in cohort with those who are considered corrupt, unjust, illegitimate and venal. It reveals how we have reduced our finest to acts of low repression and military violence. They reveal how after nine years we are still struggling, fighting, retreating, and blaming each other while the nation remains mired in corruption, violence and a movement that may be retrograde and violent but has been allowed to position itself as nationalist and anti-occupation. Yes, the appeal of the resistance comes not from any particular message of ‘Islam’ or ‘Global Jihad’, but from simply pointing out the inequities and injustices prevalent in the country under our watch.
But all this is entirely missing from the works being produced at the moment. The wars that exist in the documents of the CIA is nothing like the war that is offered to us by our reporters and photographers. The latter is a vision from Dante’s Inferno, the former a cleansed Hollywood production complete with acceptable rending of ‘violence’ so that can are not ‘disturbed’ from our morning coffee.
In fact, there is nothing that one can turn to and understand the broader consequences of our wars. And yet we continue to produce a whole host of works that concentrate on the trauma of our ‘boys and girls’. I do not mean to dismiss the suffering of the American soldiers injured or those of the American families suffering from loss. Far from it. But I am in fact dismayed that as Americans at war we can be so ignorant, dismissive and blind to the vast sufferings that are being inflicted on others who are also human, but happen not to be American (or British, or Swedish etc.). I am ashamed at the silence in the face of the murders being committed, the horrors being inflicted, the injustices raining upon the heads of a poor, impoverished nation whose people are today rising up in revolt against our presence there and the hideous, murderous, greedy and callous ‘democrats’ we have foisted on the people. The sheer shame of the illegal and illegitimate Karzai government – supported purely and only because of our money, is perhaps just too much to take!
They, the ‘other’, is completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept. The attention is absolutely and exclusively on ‘us’ and ‘ourselves’, which is what these projects are about in the end. What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or Ashly Gilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real innocent victims, and the real crimes committed here. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have failed defending the faith, in innocence and purity. They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects to garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims. And this is particularly obvious when there is little or scant attention being paid to those who are suffering, dying, being tortured, detained, displaced, deprived and devastated by our actions in their lands.
Of course, we have a long history of turning our acts of brutality and genocide into comforting victimhood. The Vietnam conflict still awaits a memorial to the millions of Vietnamese who died under our bombs, the millions maimed and scarred for life, and the tens of thousands who continue to suffer the consequences of Agent Orange and other chemicals. To say nothing about war crimes tribunals and criminal indictments.
The Afghanistan War Logs, much like Paglen’s work, reveals the shocking shallowness of our photojournalistic coverage. They lift the covers over the very things we wish not to see or confront – the darker aspects of ourselves and our actions in the world. They remind us how much, how most of it, has just been left unsaid. It reminds us how redundant, and limited, our photographic works are and how desperately most photographers just seem to want to copy and imitate. Not think and challenge. The surface distracts while the depth confuses.
The entire corpus of mainstream photojournalism pales in comparison to the efforts of real reporters and individuals confronting the complex set of administrative, military, covert, civic and political shenanigans and injustices required to maintain our posture in the GWAT.
It is in moments like this that I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s challenge to us:
Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?
David was trying to remind us to hold on the things that matter, and to not get distracted by the ‘fire and glory’, the empty rhetoric, the debilitating and restrictive legal and judicial measures that will only reduce us as citizens while doing little to confront our enemies. Tim Paglen reminds me that at least some have heard his call.
As citizens of this nation, as Americans, perhaps our greatest challenge today, perhaps one of our most important acts of freedom, is to question what we see, hear and read. To look and hear past the slickly produced photo essays, reportage, movies and documentaries, and explore their methods of creation, their sponsors, their producers, their restrictions and their prejudices.
In a world increasingly obsessed with ‘packaging’ and ‘presentation’, in a world where an iPad application is being suggested as something ‘interesting’, it is becoming crucial to examine the underlying ‘method’. Trevor Paglen has a method – individual, determined and dissenting, which informs his works and productions. And the truths that he reveals. It is ‘method’ that most scares our mainstream press and it is ‘method’ that will determine and define meaningful journalism vs. simply slick business news production. As bureaus close, as the media markets consolidate, as wires take over foreign reporting, as ‘collaborations’ with NGOs are sought as substitute for independent investigative, questioning journalism, as we ‘cut corners’ and ‘make efficient’, it is ‘method’ that becomes the key differentiator. All else will simply be ‘production’.