The Practical, Profound Problem of Picturing the NSA

Why three photos of office parks (yes, office parks!) are actually a big deal
The National Reconnaissance Office, from the sky (Trevor Paglen)

Since the spring of last year, when the Snowden documents began to support scoops and stories, the media has had a problem: It is hard to depict the places and programs that Snowden’s stories describe.

It may sound simple, but it’s a problem practical and profound. The lack of photographs that even show the government's intelligence agencies mean that the same pictures get used over and over again. 

Just as the same couple of Snowden pics kept appearing in stories early on, there’s basically only one photo of the NSA headquarters:


It’s a stock photo provided by the NSA itself. It looks like it was taken in the 1970s. You can download it on Wikipedia.

Once you know what it looks like, you will see it everywhere.

This sameness makes all the stories about the organization look the same (and kind of boring), which affects in turn how they travel in the media ecosystem. A fascinating story with a dull image, alas, isn’t as likely to be clicked or shared.

The artist and geographer Trevor Paglen has tried to solve that problem today. In the inaugural issue of the new digital magazine The Intercept, he’s published three photos of major American defense agencies that he took last year by helicopter. The three agencies are National Security Agency (NSA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

Crucially, he’s donated the images to the public domain, and made them available on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

He’s doing this, he says, “expand the visual vocabulary we use to ‘see’ the U.S. intelligence community.” He wants people to know the agencies exist, and to feel civic ownership over them in the same way they feel ownership over their local library.

The Intercept is the first product of First Look, the media organization founded by eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar to support journalism about stories like Snowden’s. The Intercept itself, in fact, exists to publish the Snowden scoops. It’s a lean and limited organization, for now, but as Nieman Lab editor Josh Benton writes, it—along with Creative Time Reports, which also commissioned the images—can extend the reach of its rhetoric by donating stock photos to the commons. 

Which news organizations should appreciate. News outlets don’t lack photos because the market has failed. They don’t have them because it is hard—onerous, if not sometimes illegal—to take photos of the offices of the NSA, NRO, and NGA.

Take the NSA, for instance. While its office park is open to the public—old spy planes and the National Cryptological Museum are there!—the public isn’t welcome to take many photos on its ground. In fact, most photography is strictly forbidden.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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