Meet the Photographer: Trevor Paglen


Trevor Paglen



How did you make the transition from academia to photography?

I actually started doing art. I was really involved in music and digital-audio, and working with post-production. Mostly sound audio, and music post-production. And it was kind of through that, that I became more and more involved in video and moving images. So I really went backwards from video into photography. A lot of people start with photography and then become interested in moving images.

How important do you think graduate school is to a fine art photographer today?

I think it depends from person to person on what kind of artist they want to be. Some programs are much more focused on technique and are more technical. The Art Institute of Chicago, where I went, was much more theoretical. We barely even made anything when I was in graduate school; it was very rigorous and helped us think about what it was that we were doing. It incorporated a lot of theory and philosophy, which was very helpful in terms of trying to articulate what I was interested in as an artist. But I am a very particular kind of artist, and that trajectory might be completely useless for somebody else. So I don’t think there is any particular cookie cutter.

How do you feel about transparency?

The way that I’ve come to understand secrecy, is a bit counter-intuitive. I think that most of us think about secrecy as what you can know versus what you can’t know. I also think about secrecy as a series of institutions, and an array of state capacities and functions. Let’s say that you want to build a secret satellite. And so we would think that the fact of having the satellite, that’s a secret. We would think, in order to build the satellite, you have to have a secret satellite factory, which means that you have to have a secret aerospace industry, which means you have to have thousands of people working on this project. You thus have to create a way for these people to keep secrets. You must have some kind of social, cultural and legal techniques for producing secrecy. Now, to fund this satellite, you have to do that in secret as well. You then will have to create a secret budget process. Finally, the satellite goes up and takes pictures. Presumably these pictures are going to be secret as well. How do you keep those secret? My point is that very quickly you start to build an alternative world that exists within the state, and you very quickly end up having a secret state and a not so secret state. Ultimately, there is one part of secrecy that relates to what information we have and what information we don’t. But I think much more about the secret industries and parts of the state, that function with very different rules from what we imagine.

When you were speaking about geography theory you said that it has much more flexibility. Can you elaborate on that?

I became interested in geography for the following reason. When I was studying art, it was very much about representation. We were thinking about what kind of images do we produce? What is the meaning of this kind of image versus other images? What always bothered me was that we never talked about the fact that these images cost money; that they exist within an economy. We never talked about how images fit into one kind of space or another. What is the meaning of an image if it is in the Louvre versus your friends’ basement versus somewhere else? Nor the power that becomes attached to images, which often times has nothing to with what is inside the frame, but more with where the image is located. We never talked about what is the difference between an image in a book versus one in an institution. To me this felt like a real limitation of the art theory I had been taught. So as I began developing my own language and work as an artist, I wanted to be able to incorporate political economy, or architecture. Or to be able to use different methods of thinking to look at what it was I was doing as an artist.

So I came across geography theory, which was a lot more robust in a certain manner. Art theory goes into representation and different ways to think about representation, in very sophisticated ways. But geography theory is much more centered on the world around us. This is the way that I think about what geography is. Geography theory is about trying to understand the ways in which humans sculpt the world around them. What are the transformations that we make to the surface of the earth? For example, we have created an apartment building. Humans have transformed the surface of the earth and made an apartment building. That apartment building also transforms us, because it says you are going to live in a certain way. Everybody will have their own unit, with different rooms. Thus the building is actively sculpting what human society will be. This is what I mean by a constant feedback loop. Culture and images fit this mold, in this sense we produce meanings and we produce ways in which we relate to the world. Images through literature and so on and so forth, this is one of the ways we relate to the surface of the earth. There are political relationships, economical relationships, architectural relationships, biological relationships. Geography theory is much looser; geography is trying to evaluate all of these things at the same time. It’s very different from art in that sense, but a lot of art theory you can fit into geography theory as well.

Can you give me an example of representation in art theory?

Let’s think about Robert Mapplethorpe. What is remarkable about Mapplethorpe is a lot of his work is about queer images. He is trying to look at something in a different way. His idea of the default human or the default portrait subject is very different from the people before him. Mapplethorpe was trying to say, this is also what a human is. He is expanding the visual definition of what a human or a portrait subject is. This is great, in that he is expanding the cultural vocabulary, or the visual vocabulary we use to think about what people look like. Or rather, what the world looks like. That is the idea behind representation theory. What does this image say? Where do they get made? Where are they shown? How much do they cost? Who collects them? There is not much of a theoretical language that talks about how this actual object works vis-a-vis auction houses and museums, regardless of what’s in the frame.

Is that why you consider your work as art? Because it makes people see the world in a different way?

For me the work is allegorical and is intended to be very allegorical. There is no evidence of anything in any of the images I create. What is the relationship between what we see and what we understand? And how do we try to attach meanings to things that may or may not look like much of anything at all? What is our relationship to images that don’t speak for themselves? All of these questions are entangled in my mind, and hopefully in my work. Ultimately, there is a question mark for me. I don’t know what this is? I don’t understand it? That’s something that I want to get across in my work. What is the act of looking at these things? Is that an allegory for something about our society or the world more generally?

So you spend your own money on your work? Or do you look to others?

At this point I raise all the money myself. In 2004, if you would have asked for a grant to see what the CIA is doing in Afghanistan they would say, “no way”. But now it’s a little more open. I’ve been able to get a little funding, but for the most part I make money from sales, lecture fees, and book royalties.

How long after you started did you get into a gallery and have your first show?

About ten years. It took me a long, long time to develop a voice. For most people it takes a long time. Even artists in their twenties who have a show, I’m just really impressed that they were able to put a show together.

How do you feel the theory of art practice has shifted?

When I went to graduate school, we just didn’t think about the difference between film or photography, or technology or sculpture. There was no emphasis on one specific media over another. We used ideas from all of these different traditions. Whereas, I think the generation before was probably much more focused on the specific histories of each media, with a larger emphasis on whether you were a sculptor, or a painter, or a photographer or whatever it was. The way I was taught was much messier.

You talk about counter-seeing and seeing with machines, can you elaborate on that?

In my definition of photography we have traditional photography, but we also have Google earth, which is a machine that we use to see the world. MRI’s, television, video, film, these are all machines that we use to see the world. Furthermore, spy satellites, different military imagery systems: like predator drones, and surveillance networks. These are all essentially cameras. They are all things that create images, but they’re also all embedded in political systems, military systems, and economic systems, and thus are all scripted in certain ways. In other words, different seeing machines see the world in particular ways, which in turn, effects the world. A predator drone, for example, is a remote controlled flying camera; it wants to target the world not take landscape photos. There’s an aesthetic theme as well as a political theme. If you have a targeting computer, or targeting camera, then you need political and social institutions that are dedicated to targeting. Where is the boundary between the camera itself and the socio-political relationships around it? When I talk to photographers, that is one of the things that I bring up. In my opinion, it’s one of the things that we, as photographers should be responsible for thinking about, because we’re people who think about how machines see. Many people are worried about what it means to be making images in the age of Google images. We have images of so much stuff yet why are we making more images? Maybe if we crack open the definition of photography a bit more, then maybe it will open up the possibility of thinking about what it means to be a photographer in the 21st century.

This notion of sublime. I like that. Is this something you continue with?

The way that I think about the sublime is that moment you are confronted with the limits of your ability to understand something. The sublime is this moment in which you are confronted with something that you are not going to be able to understand, something that is quite powerful and quite awesome. This is pretty traditional. The Alps, for example, where the sublime is the size and the fact that you could easily die on them. Or nuclear weapons can be sublime, because of the overwhelming destructive force they possess. How can you even start to imagine what this means? That is something that speaks to me a lot because the question of the sublime is ultimately a question of what are our limits as humans? For me the sublime is not just the nuclear explosion, or the vastness of space, it’s also about the bureaucracy. The very everyday things that structure our lives in ways that are also infinitely complicated and infinitely difficult to understand.

What would be sublime to you?

In some of my work I’m photographing spy satellites. There is a tradition in art and in human history in general of the sublime being associated with the night sky, looking up and not ever being able to understand fully what is going on in the sky, and that is sort of what’s important about it. The sky is an infinite inverted mirror of ourselves. We project stories onto it and try to find out our destinies in it. Whether that be interpreting constellations as gods, or the Hubble Space Telescope taking pictures of galaxies that are tens of billions of light-years away. Even though one is a scientific question and one is a cultural question, they are trying to do the same thing. In other words, ask these big, big questions about where does the universe come from? And what does it all mean?

You said that art is seeing the world in a particular way and trying to communicate those ways to others?

I think I make art for me but I make it for others too. I want to communicate with other people. I feel I’m very privileged to have a place in society where I can spend time looking at things and researching things, and there is nothing necessarily unique about my interests. I figure if I’m interested in something then there’s probably ten million other people in the world who would be interested in it as well. Maybe my job is to try and tell those ten million people about it, in such a way that a lot of people can understand.

What advice would you give an emerging photographer or a young artist who is just starting out?

My main advice is that at the end of the day you have to do stuff that you enjoy, and you have to do what you love. The best advice I ever received in terms of building a career is don’t get famous doing something you don’t like, and live below your means (laughs).

What is unique about your creative process?

I’ve been offered commissions a couple times to photograph specific places, and I’ve always turned them down because the idea that I go somewhere and take a picture to deliver on someone else’s schedule. It was just impossible for me to guarantee.




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