If it is true that ‘the problem with photojournalism is that it is hooked on the visible’ – as Simon Norfolk once commented – then the work of Trevor Paglen might offer a compelling counterexample to the genre’s traditional precepts. His recently published Invisible – Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes compiles several distinct bodies of work all of which explore regions or domains of US military activity more usually shrouded in secrecy.

Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada, 2007 ©Trevor Paglen

In an ongoing series, The Other Night Sky, for example, he photographs the giveaway trails of light left by American spy satellites as they orbit the earth. To an extent the project was inspired by an early case of what Paglen describes as beginner’s luck: he had pointed a tripod-mounted small wide-angle camera at the stars above the Berkeley Hills one night, having first guestimated where the LACROSSE 3 spacecraft might be crossing. Obligingly, the satellite appeared on cue and registered as a trace of light across the photographed night sky. Though he proceeded to invest thousands of (grant-funded) dollars in astrophotography equipment, built an impromptu observatory above his apartment and studied the night sky with various sophisticated telescope designs, it took nearly a year to successfully repeat the achievement.

LACROSSE / ONYX V near Cepheus, 2008 ©Trevor Paglen

The project continues – Paglen now works with the findings of an informal network of amateur, yet accurate, satellite spotters; and he uses a computer-controlled telescope mount, modelling software and a guided-exposure camera system to get results. No one said it was going to be easy. After all, these are not ‘benign’ meteorological craft; as Paglen writes, they are military hardware designed to ‘pluck a cell phone call out of the electromagnetic ether, pinpoint its origin, and task a Keyhole – or Onyx-class spacecraft – with imaging the area. The imaging satellite can then send targeting information to a covert data-relay spacraft… which can transmit bombing coordinates to airborne JSTARS command stations, Tomahawk cruise missiles and “smart bombs” in B-52 stealth bombers.

Large Hangars and Fuel Storage, 2005, Tonopah Test Range, NV ©Trevor Paglen

Paglen is based in the Geography Department of Berkeley’s UCLA; and the cartographic impulse behind his mapping of America’s militarised skies is evident too in an earlier project – Limit Telephotography – in which he photographed classified bases in Utah, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. He remained, of course, off-limits, shooting with telescope lenses from remote mountaintops. The hangars and fuel storage facilities at Nevada’s Tonopah Test Range, for example, were pictured from 18 miles away; the flare of the lights at Groom Lake’s Air Force Flight Test Center, invisible by day, was shot from 26 miles; the soft haze of Utah’s chemical and biological proving ground is 42 miles distant; while the Rothko-esque abstractions of the Navy-owned installation at San Nicolas Island are all that can be seen of a base that is 65 miles to the west.

Chemical and Biological Proving Ground No 2, 2006, Dugway, UT ©Trevor Paglen

At their most extreme the images yield little evidential information about their subjects; they are, rather, telling tests of the limits of visibility, or rapt enquiries into the proximity of invisibility. Traditional photographic concerns – regarding exposure, depth of field, composition, say – are negated by the primary function: to try to represent that which must not be shown.

Unmarked 737 at ‘Gold Coast’ Terminal, 2006 ©Trevor Paglen

Yet elsewhere, such scant detail that is available has proved both effective and damning, shedding light on the CIA’s notorious rendition programme, for example. Working with ‘plane-spotters,’ researchers, journalists and activists, Paglen has collaborated on the documentation of the agency’s use of civilian front companies, fake flight plans, ‘ghost’ prisoners and ‘black’ sites.

We are not meant to know of such matters, far less see them. But they are integral to America’s (and its ragtag cohorts’) war – a war fought in the flash-lit glare of bombings and briefings… and in the distanced, darkened regions of Paglen’s invisible spaces.

invisible_coverInvisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes
Photography by Trevor Paglen
Essay by Rebecca Solnit
Published by Aperture