‘We’re Not Asking Permission’: Watch Photographer Trevor Paglen Recount His Fraught Mission to Document the National Security Agency

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Trevor Paglen: Power & Perspective." © Art21, Inc. 2015.

Trevor Paglen has dedicated his artistic practice to revealing the corners of the world that would otherwise go unseen. If the institutions whose headquarters and activities he documents had it their way, they would have remained hidden forever.

Paglen is a fine art photographer with a PhD in geography and the spirit of an investigative journalist. His background in science makes him an ideal candidate for creating art in the age of deep machine learning, when the public’s mistrust of corporations and governments is at a fever pitch.

In an exclusive interview as part of Art21’s “Extended Play” series Power and Perspective, Paglen describes the process of photographing the headquarters of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, a highly secure location that is rarely seen by those on the outside.

“There’s a little bit of drama around this picture,” Paglen says, laughing as he describes the interaction between himself and the agency. He recounts calling up the NSA to let them know that he and his team would be flying a helicopter overhead with the express purpose of taking aerial photographs. “They [the NSA] said, ‘We don’t want you to do that.’ We said, ‘Well, we’re not asking permission… and don’t shoot us!'”

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Trevor Paglen: Power & Perspective." © Art21, Inc. 2015.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Trevor Paglen: Power & Perspective.” © Art21, Inc. 2015.

The resulting image is a bird’s eye view of what appears to be a sprawling shopping mall, with fluorescent lights illuminating the expansive building complex. Paglen is aware of the dissonance inherent in his works—if an unknowing viewer happened upon the image, it might not be immediately clear that they were seeing something not intended for public release.

“It seems like a very normal-looking place,” Paglen tells Art21. “I struggle with that, because of the extent to which the NSA’s tendrils are in our everyday lives.” But Paglen insists that if the NSA can see us, then we should be able to see it. “You, as a member of the public, should be able to exert the same kind of power over this institution,” he says.

Right now, visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego can get a glimpse into the many covert landscapes Paglen has documented over the course of his decades-long career in “Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen,” which brings together his early photographic series alongside his most recent forays into the realm of artificial intelligence.


Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, through June 2, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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