These Are the Faces of Art Activism Today

A painting can change the way you see the world. But the 15 men and women shown here are betting that art can change the world itself.

Trevor Paglen

Photographed at Manhattan’s Metro Pictures Gallery, in the reflection of Paglen’s work Color Study (San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA)

Trevor Paglen grew up on U.S. Air Force bases, surrounded by secrecy. Now he turns what the military keeps hidden into art. An artist and author with a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California, Berkeley, Paglen fuses image-making, engineering, and investigative reporting to explore the murky ethics of mass surveillance. He’s best known for his photographs of NSA eavesdropping centers, CIA black sites, and American spy satellites, which he takes from public lands using powerful lenses. For Paglen, the very act of documenting state secrecy is a statement. “When you’re making images, you’re exercising your right to make images,” he says. “It’s a corollary to freedom of speech.”

Yet his photographs of military installations are intentionally blurry, like Impressionist landscapes; beautiful shots of killer drones in flight look like Rothko paintings, so zoomed out that the Predators are all but invisible. The object worth considering in Paglen’s pictures isn’t the base or the drone; it’s the difficulty in finding it.

“It’s about teaching people how to see and suggesting that certain things are important for society to look at.” The haziness of his images underscores how hard it is to locate truth when governments—of both parties, Paglen insists—track their citizens but conceal their own actions. —Gabriella Fuller

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Chris Alexakisart, patronage, policy