Which artist should win the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize? A Young Person Responds

We asked 18 year-old Tara Albini who should win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize this year, and here’s what she said. The exhibition runs up to the 3rd July – further information and tickets are available here.


Installation view, Trevor Paglen, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2016 at The Photographers’ Gallery. Image: Kate Elliott.

Whilst the works of all four artists merit praise, Trevor Paglen’s exhibition The Octopus particularly stood out as a previously undisclosed topic executed with extreme calculation, thus deserving of the prize.

The dimly lit room in which his works are placed suitably takes the viewer into a world of secrecy and pretense – fitting with the misleading nature of the photographs themselves. At first glace, one could almost assume the presented works are exploring themes of nature and vacation, mistaking the images of mass surveillance for depictions of vast seabeds, star-filled night skies and documentation of a holiday destination. Like the western authoritative powers that Paglen is exposing, his works are seemingly deceptive in their execution. The aspects of surveillance and political influence within several of the works are subtle enough for the viewer to have to scour the canvas to notice, such as a bug-sized drone in the intensely colourful skyscape in Untitled (Reaper Drone). This piece, along with the rest of the exhibition visually presents the notion that although these activities are desperately concealed, they are still very much present.

Paglen’s triptych of aerial shots at night of the National Security Agency headquarters in Maryland, the National Reconnaissance Office in Virginia and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Virginia visually and conceptually epitomize the irony of his works. Whilst observing these mysterious concrete complexes, the observer becomes the observed; those who step into the exhibition become the ones conducting surveillance. Paglen momentarily shifts the dynamic of power away from these agencies, which run spy satellites and manage mapping intelligence, and temporarily places control within the viewer’s hands. In contrast to this, the eerie floodlights and seemingly desolate car parks increase the sense that the mass are oblivious, whilst the power of knowledge is in the hands of few. One could argue that this triptych is the most powerful component of the exhibition.

Whilst Paglen’s works shed light on the systems of authoritative control hidden from the public eye, there is a degree of mystery that is sustained throughout the exhibition, prompting curiosity upon exit. We are made aware of cables that run along our seafloors in the piece An undersea cable off Miami, yet we are still clueless to what information passes through them every second. We are made aware of the secret government buildings seemingly hidden around America, such as the appropriately titled They watch the Moon, but we are still left to wonder about what exactly entails within them – a thought that continues long after departure from the exhibition. The ability of these works to provoke such interest, and make one question the world that we live in shows the educating influence of Paglen’s exhibition, whilst the works are equally aesthetically exciting.

Paglen’s works have the ability to educate the observer on a topic that is rarely disclosed, whilst similarly evoking a strong desire to know more, and are thus deserving of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.

Tara Albini

Trevor Paglen (b. 1974, USA) selected for his exhibition The Octopus at Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany (20 June – 30 August 2015).

Paglen’s project represents complex topics like mass surveillance, data collection, classified satellite and drone activities and the systems of power connected to them. His installation comprises images of restricted military and government areas, skylines showing the flight tracks of passing drones, sculptural elements and research assembled in collaboration with scientist, amateur astronomers and human rights activists.

Through his work Paglen demonstrates that secrets cannot be hidden from view, but that their traces and structures are visible evidence in the landscape.

Young speaker Harry Dobson will be giving a tour of one of our exhibitions on the 11th June, offering new perspectives on the show. You can drop in and listen to Harry for free at 2pm. Further information here.

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