How Trevor Paglen Became The (Unofficial) Stock Photographer Of U.S. Spy Agencies

The artist speaks to Co.Design about his latest work photographing the infrastructure of U.S. intelligence.


Trevor Paglen deals in state secrets far more than the average artist. A New York-based artist, geographer, and author, Paglen has photographed secret military sites and spy satellites. His latest attempt to capture what the U.S. government would rather we not see: photographs of intelligence-agency headquarters in the D.C. area.


The photos have been made available in the public domain, meaning anyone can use them. This is important because there are very few publicly available images of the headquarters of the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. That’s all but made Paglen the unofficial stock photographer of U.S. intelligence infrastructure.

Paglen spoke to Co.Design about his work, which first appeared on The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald’s new site, and Creative Time Reports, a nonprofit arts website.

Co.Design: How did this project get started?

Trevor Paglen: It basically got started because there were all these NSA stories coming out based on the Snowden documents. There were very few images of the NSA out there. There’s one image in particular of the NSA that I think is from the 1970s that seemed to be the image that most places were using. I got annoyed looking at that one image all the time. I thought, what’s going on here that we have such a small visual vocabulary that we’re using to try to “see” the NSA?

How difficult was the process of capturing these photos?

The thing that was a big question mark was whether the NSA would kind of go along with this. All of the air space above those places is restricted. So the people at Creative Time were coordinating with people at the NSA–to the NSA’s credit they were actually really great about being open. Last year, there’s no way that they would have allowed something like this to go on.


We were also given permission by the NGA and National Reconnaissance Office. The exception was the CIA. They were not very helpful.

Was the goal always to shoot the locations from above?

Yes. The NSA, in particular, I spent a lot of time driving around there, trying to figure out angles. The only place [to photograph from] is if you basically drive up to their parking lot. And you’re not going to drive up to their parking lot and set up a tripod.

What struck me most about these buildings is how vast the parking lots are.

That was actually the thing I was getting at with the images. Aesthetically, these are big black buildings for the most part. It’s almost like shooting the void. You get the vastness of the parking lot and the building is almost the negative space of that. I kind of like that as a little allegory. The building is almost like a black hole that’s sucking up the energy of the things around it.


This isn’t your first project exploring the notion of secrecy. What attracts you to that theme?

One of the kinds of things I’m consistently interested in is what the border between the seen and not seen is, and the border between being able to perceive something and not perceive it. When you’re looking at secret parts of the state, whether that’s the NSA or spy satellites in the night sky, there is a kind of paradox in secret institutions, a paradox where these institutions are largely set up to be invisible but they become visible in certain ways. That’s what I’m interested in, is that relationship between visibility and invisibility, legibility and illegibility.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut