Trevor Paglen was born in 1974 at an Air Force base in Maryland where his father was an ophthalmologist. He grew up on bases in the USA and Germany. A former prison-rights activist, Paglen's photographs often depict classified military activity. Previous series have featured a National Security Agency's eavesdropping complex, an Israeli nuclear weapons facility and a secret CIA prison. The images are always shot from public land. Consequentially, they are often blurred, sometimes even indecipherable. This tendency is embraced by Paglen as emphasising the secretive nature of the establishments from which he is attempting to gather information.
Trained in geography and photography, Paglen's photographs investigate the contemporary American surveillance state. However, he does not aim for perfectly crisp images and understands his photos cannot be used as evidence; he instead wants his work to wake the viewer up to what is going on around them, lurking just below the surface. Carefully keeping within the law, Paglen has photographed military facilities, stealth drones and information-gathering satellites. Through a practice that generally encompasses journalism, engineering, history, politics, photography and more, Paglen has explored the accountability or lack thereof of covert or offshore bases and more broadly the relationship between public and private information. While his works usually take the form of large-scale photographic prints, he has also made installations and films. In 2007 he published a book called I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me—a collection of photographs of military patches representing various covert projects undertaken by American personnel.
The work of drones has grown more prolific in military activity of recent years and has accordingly increased in presence in Paglen's work. They are interesting to him not only for their murderous power, but for how they rewire methods of seeing and our understanding of distance. Underlying Paglen's process is a determination towards an awareness of what is hidden. In his photographs of drones, the drones are mere dots on beautiful skies. As a viewer it is a struggle to drag your attention away from the stunning view of the clouds, to find that small dot that is the drone. This spot, however, represents surveillance and potentially death, and is dangerous to ignore.
Paglen uses his research and art to gain new perspectives on the contemporary political moment in its historical context, as well as imagining possible futures. With the help of Creative Time and MIT, in 2012 Paglen launched a disc micro-etched with 100 photographs into distant orbit around Earth. The disc is surrounded by a gold-plated shell and is designed to last billions of years. The project acts as a time capsule for future generations or aliens, or perhaps humankind's successor. The Last Pictures, a critical compendium, documents this project and the process of choosing the 100 photographs. Paglen received his BA from University of California, Berkeley, MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and PhD in Geography from University of California, Berkeley. His PhD dissertation was altered and published under the title Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Hidden World. In 2014 he received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and in 2016 he was awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.
Paglen lives and works in Berlin.