Hidden in Plain Site: The Work of Trevor Paglen

listening post

National Reconnaissance Office Ground Station (ADF-SW, photograph by Trevor Paglen

Seeing What's Meant to be Invisible

Out of context these photographs don’t look like anything special, in fact they look like hastily taken snapshots. But put them into context and they’re part of a much bigger and darker story.

The black world isn’t so black anymore. Spy movies such as The Bourne Identity, Zero Dark Thirty, and television shows like Homeland have thrown the covert world into the limelight.

But what is the covert world? Where is it? It’s something tangible that we don’t usually think about. There’s locations, infrastructure, concrete. Things which can be seen and touched.

That’s exactly what Paglen did. He traveled the world photographing black sites operated by the United States. From secret prisons in Afghanistan to NSA listening posts in rural Maryland, Paglen made it his mission to document as many as possible.

There’s something eerie about looking at these photographs. It feels like voyeurism, we’re peering into a private world we’re not meant to see.

Paglen’s portfolio is filled with similar work. From documenting the flights used to ferry prisoners for the CIA’s Extraordinary Rendition Program, dubbed the “Torture Taxi”, to photographing the shoulder patches worn by covert military forces.


They Watch the Moon, NSA Listening Post in West Virginia. Photograph by Trevor Paglen.

Some might take issue with what he does, I mean these places are meant to be secret, not appear in books. But I think Paglen’s work helps us to better understand the covert world. By seeing what it actually looks like, we can gain a better understanding of it. It’s uncensored and unbiased, there’s no political agenda here. That’s really for the best.

You can purchase Trevor Paglen’s book Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes here. Or if you’re interested in a bit of a longer read which dives more in-depth, I highly reccomend his book Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World, which you can find on Amazon here.