If you've ever written or read about the NSA, you'll encounter one main problem: it's impossible to illustrate. All of the photographs that exist of the NSA are variations on this one, which basically makes its Fort Meade headquarters look like the most sinisterly banal aviation hangar in the world. It also appears to date back to the '70s, long before the NSA's current incarnation as our evil all-seeing overlords.
As The Atlantic notes, that creates a couple of tricky issues for anyone trying to write about the NSA. When the same image gets used over and over again, reader fatigue sets in. No matter how juicy a new Snowden leak might be, it just won't get clicked on and passed around if the image accompanying it looks boring as hell. And if you find pictures of an office block boring, imagine how few people actually pay attention to the actual information in the leaked NSA Powerpoint files. (Welcome to 21st century news, by the way.)
Photographer and artist Trevor Paglan set about trying to rectify this. He rented a helicoptor and took aerial shots of the NSA headquarters, along with two of the other largest intelligence agencies in the US: the NRO, which controls America’s spy satellites, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which analyzes such imagery, coordinating the geographic information with other surveillance-gathered data.
"My intention is to expand the visual vocabulary we use to 'see' the U.S. intelligence community," Paglen explains. "Although the organizing logic of our nation’s surveillance apparatus is invisibility and secrecy, its operations occupy the physical world. Digital surveillance programs require concrete data centers; intelligence agencies are based in real buildings; surveillance systems ultimately consist of technologies, people, and the vast network of material resources that supports them. If we look in the right places at the right times, we can begin to glimpse America’s vast intelligence infrastructure."
Paglen has placed all the resulting images into public domain without restriction, to be used by anyone for any purpose whatsoever, with or without attribution.
Visualising surveillance culture just got a whole lot easier.
Here's Trevor Paglan on his helicoptor ride around America's surveillance headquarters:
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