Documenting the Invisible: Political Agency in Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography


  • Gary Kafer University of Chicago



Trevor Paglen, Limit Telephotography, Documentary, Surveillance, Relational Aesthetics, Experimental Geography


Taken from up to forty miles away, Trevor Paglen's limit telephotography images of covert military bases in the American Southwest are blurred by dense atmopshere, dust and debris. In effect, his photographs are highly illegible, and thus the military bases escape any sort of revelation. Following this logic, if one cannot see these top secret locations, then these images are in fact not politically effective at disclosing confidential federal information. Rather, Paglen asserts that the political agency of his can be located not in the image, but in the practice of performing limit telephotography - standing on public land and excercising the right to photograph. In turn, Paglen relocates the documentarian potential of his images into an agency formulated by a relational aesthetic, one in which the communal effects of creating the image and interpreting it generate the possibilities of enacting further practices of political resistance.

Author Biography

Gary Kafer, University of Chicago

Gary Kafer is PhD student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, where he received his MA in 2015. His research examines issues of surveillance art practices in our post-privacy culture, as well as questions surrounding digital media aesthetics and contemporary visuality. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 with a BA in Cinema Studies and Visual Studies, wherein he concentrated in visual neuroscience and perceptual psychology. His honors BA thesis examined Stan Brakhage's plastic montage by using models of motion perception to understand how he generates a type of cinematic illusionism.




How to Cite

Kafer, G. (2016). Documenting the Invisible: Political Agency in Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography. Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture, 5(1), 53–71.