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.

When the artist (and my friend) Ingrid Burrington visited the site last fall, she found this sign:

courtesy of Ingrid Burrington

Photos of the BUILDINGS IN BACKGROUND—in other words, photos of the NSA headquarters—are UNACCEPTABLE. Any photography of the NSA’s offices, therefore, happens on the NSA’s terms, and the agency is free to depict itself as corporate and unremarkable as it would like.

As Burrington wrote after the trip:

Mass surveillance has an image problem. The visual references commonly used to portray intelligence agencies—screens, servers and sleek glass buildings—don’t suggest an ethics or a rationale to their operations. They don’t suggest that there are even humans involved in collecting information about millions of other humans.

Paglen has solved this problem with a helicopter. And by solving the problem, he’s found a way to smuggle some politics into a portrayal. There are so few photos of the physical offices of the agencies that distributing new ones lets you depict them pointedly. Paglen’s NSA is a little darker, a little more insidious, than the sunny monolithic office building in the well-known stock photo. Paglen’s NSA pic has a different objective than the NSA’s.


Paglen’s NRO, likewise (it’s at the top of this post), shows the agency situated next to a highway. It exists: It has office, it has computers, its workers have cars. His image of the NGA tilts toward the same point, showing the lights of homes and cars in the background. These aren’t office parks in the middle of nowhere, Paglen says: They’re real places in Maryland and Virginia, where real people go to work to spy on their fellow citizens.

Trevor Paglen

“One of the quickest ways to make people think differently about something is to change the visuals around it,” Cindy Gallop, an advertising executive, told the New York Times today. “The thing about these images is they work on an unconscious level to reinforce what people think people should be like.”

Gallop wasn’t talking about the agencies in the surveillance state. She was talking about a new set of stock photos produced by Getty Images and the feminist nonprofit Lean In. The new stock images show professional women of many races in many settings—likenesses of accomplished women (and caring men) more complex than a caricatured stiletto stepping on an oafish man.

Though they have decidedly different motives, Lean In and The Intercept are employing the same strategy. When stock photos are widely used in both journalism and advertising, they dictate how we understand stories. Making new images freely available, then, has a slanting power.

It doesn’t make an argument, per se—it does something more powerful. It shapes the arguments that other people can make.