The Experimental Geography of Trevor Paglen
Last May, Trevor Paglen, a 32-year-old artist and self-described “experimental geographer,” flew to Kabul to photograph a CIA prison that does not officially exist. From studying satellite photos of the site and accounts of foreign citizens who had been held there, Paglen had determined the likely location of the secret prison, known as the Salt Pit. His translator found a driver willing to take him east of the city, through a remote valley with a view of little but scrap yards and smoke rising from brick-baking furnaces, that led to the site. When they were about a half-mile away, Paglen photographed the prison from the car’s window. The image he captured—of a nondescript former factory behind a wall topped with razor wire—is believed to be the first of the site taken from the ground. It also makes the abstract horror of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, in which suspected terrorists and other persons of interest are held in secret prisons around the world, undeniably concrete.
For the past five years, Paglen has investigated “black sites”—military and intelligence facilities that are off-limits to civilians but often hidden in plain sight. He has explored the ranching roads and cattle trails of Nevada to get a glimpse of the Tonopah Test Range, a classified installation where the military tests bombs and rockets. He has photographed Area 51, the nearby secret base where the government designs military aircraft (and the worldwide nerve center of UFO conspiracy theories). He has captured images of civilian charter planes used in intelligence operations. In many of these cases, Paglen photographed his subjects from a distance of 20 to 50 miles, using a telescopic lens powerful enough to photograph objects in outer space. His compressed, impressionistic images, which evoke the surreal nature of these sites, can be seen in an ongoing show at MASS MoCA.
Paglen, who sees little distinction between his art and his work as a geographer, is also a writer, and his obsession with hidden worlds led him to spend much of the last few years pursuing evidence of the extraordinary rendition program. His recent book, “Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights” (Melville House Publishing), co-written with the investigative journalist A.C. Thompson, tells the story of that pursuit, with its many dead-ends and astonishing successes. It is an investigation that took Paglen and Thompson not only to the Salt Pit prison in Kabul, but to seemingly anonymous places in everyday American life—like a small-town airport that serves as a frequent last stop on the rendition flight circuit.
The book, which includes many of Paglen’s photographs, provides an elegantly concise and readable history of extraordinary rendition from its beginnings in the Clinton administration. It has all the creepiness of a Philip K. Dick novel, though the dystopia of “Torture Taxi” is all the more disturbing since it takes place in the present-day real world. (To the authors’ credit, the book is meticulously footnoted throughout.) Paglen and Thompson make clear that extraordinary rendition has become a standard method for how the CIA handles terror suspects captured abroad, rather than “extraordinary,” and that the machinery for the program is supported by operations at home. “When we think of the structure of this whole program, it’s not just something that happens in secret prisons in Afghanistan,” says Paglen, who lives in San Francisco and has an easygoing, affable manner, in contrast to the often-bleak subjects of his research. “It’s something that happens in a rural town in North Carolina. It happens in the suburbs of Boston and in a law office in Nevada.”
Paglen came across civilian charter planes used by the CIA through an earlier project on military bases. He started making contacts with planespotters—aircraft enthusiasts who compulsively log air traffic—who had inadvertently discovered that charter planes were using remote U.S. airstrips to disguise their intentions to fly onward to places like Pakistan, Libya and Romania. Paglen started researching these civilian planes around the time that extensive reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Yorker revealed that the CIA was kidnapping foreign citizens and holding them in detention centers abroad, typically in countries known for torturing prisoners.
In these prisons, the CIA could hold and interrogate suspects at will. The number of prisoners currently held in this limbo form of custody is unknown, since only a handful have emerged and spoken about it to the press. A November report by the European Parliament charged that the CIA has flown more than 1,200 flights through European airspace since the Sept. 11 attacks, though how many of these flights carried terror suspects is unclear. Last fall, Bush acknowledged the existence of the detention program and said 14 prisoners would be transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
As media reports pieced together the details of the program, Paglen realized that the research he had accumulated—which included airplane registration documents and collections of signatures (many of them obvious fakes) linked to front companies that leased planes to the CIA— could add new layers to this portrait. Unsure of how to carry his research forward, he approached his friend A.C. Thompson, a writer for SF Weekly. Before long, the two published a story on their findings and began working on Torture Taxi. “Immediately I saw a story where we could do a lot of digging and might actually get some results,” says Thompson, adding that Paglen was quick to pick up the basics of muckraking. “There was a natural inclination to do a story on what we thought was one of the great crimes of the century.”
Not that they didn’t get shut down at times in the course of their digging. Sometimes their investigations yield more of a portrait of a place than details about CIA operations. When Paglen and Thompson travel to a strip mall in Dedham, Massachusetts, to investigate Premier Executive Transport Services, the owner of a plane used for rendition flights, they get no further than the receptionist. Yet they succeed in using Premier as an example of how the CIA creates front companies, complete with fictitious boards of directors. In Smithfield, North Carolina, they profile two activists, among the few locals willing to speak about the CIA work at the county airport. “Sometimes we’d find people who’d talk and other times not, but we would always learn something, and often what we learned was more philosophical,” Paglen says. “When we were in North Carolina, very few people would talk to us. But we did get this sense that here is this weird town, and it’s got this secret. It’s more of a philosophical point about how this war on terror has changed everyday life and insinuated itself into everyday life.”
Much of Paglen’s work plays with ideas of perception. He is perhaps best known for his photography, particularly images created with a technique he developed called “limit telephotography,” in which he uses astronomy equipment to photograph subjects from dozens of miles away. He used the technique to photograph black sites in the United States such as the Tonopah Test Range and Area 51, and recently exhibited these images in a solo show at Chelsea’s Bellwether Gallery. “On many different levels, he creates an abstraction,” says Becky Smith, the owner of Bellwether. “There are these beautiful photographs that are very distorted, because of the lens he uses, but there’s also the complex, abstract concept of photographing something that has been ‘disappeared.’”
Paglen is currently a PhD candidate in geography at the University of California at Berkeley. Previously, he played bass in a punk band and worked as a designer and programmer. “Trevor is an incredibly driven, incredibly talented person, with a massive eclectic intellect,” says Thompson, who met Paglen in the Berkeley punk scene a decade ago. Paglen is now working on two books planned for release by next year, one that he describes as a “fun book” of photos of secret military insignia, and another on secret military projects and the history of blank spaces on the map, a sort of companion to Torture Taxi.
A certain level of ambiguity is unavoidable in this line of work. But Paglen doesn’t shy away from it. “In the end, all of this confirms, or seems to confirm, the existence of some kind of unseen world,” he says. “I’m really trying to say that here are all these places, funded with tax dollars, that we don’t know anything about. And here’s everything that I found that we can know about it. I just try to collect the evidence.”
Jen Itzenson is a writer who lives in New York.