His work method resembles investigative journalism: through interviews, field investigations and the detailed gathering of information from documents published by the US Government, he manages to identify things such as American torture camps in Afghanistan and CIA front companies running airlines whose function is to transfer suspects - with no legal authority - from the most distant countries to US detention centres.
In Rendition Flights 2001-2006, Paglen traces the various routes followed by front companies between 2001 - the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York - and 2006, the year in which the CIA put a stop to his investigations. His photographic series Limit Telephotography instead for the first time shows secret US bases which are used to torture prisoners or transfer them to other countries on so-called "torture flights". As these sites have intentionally been developed within military areas that are off limits, they are not visible by the naked eye from any outside vantage point. Often built in the desert, they are places invisible to public opinion. To record them, Paglen uses powerful lenses of the kind employed for space photography, capturing them from as far as 100 kilometres away. The distance of the camera from its subject and the atmospheric dust floating in the air between give these pictures an almost abstract quality, pushing them to the very limits of their intelligibility and even visibility. In such a way, the artist engages with the theme of the power of representation of photography and of the actual possibility of getting to know these hidden places.
Paglen describes his procedure in the following terms: "Rather than trying to find out what's actually going on behind closed doors, I am trying to take a hard look at the door itself". His work revolves around the still indistinct boundaries of the "black world", an institutional power that officially does not exist and ignores frontiers and international laws. Paglen provides information on what is taking place beyond public control - things the knowledge of which is exclusively based on hearsay. What really goes on in these hidden areas remains a secret.
For this reason, Paglen presents the result of his investigations without making them laden with interpretations, explanations and judgements, thus radically distinguishing his own work from that of journalists or human rights activists. His photographs provide a glimpse of a reality we know nothing about and which we can only speculate on, based on the pieces of information at our disposal.
As Paglen expands the limits of what photography can make visible, all criteria vanish for evaluating what the images actually show - in other words, what can be represented. Paglen's photographs would almost appear reminiscent of the procedure adopted by the Bush administration in 2003, when as proof of the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - and hence as a source of legitimization for war - photographs were used that had been taken from space, whereby indistinct and blurry shapes and figures were interpreted erroneously and tendentiously. By presenting his works in an artistic context, Paglen is expanding his own enquiry to the point of turning it into a veritable cultural reflection upon the very value of his pictures. The artist invites viewers to consider the relation between seeing and knowing, and the complex connection between photographs and facts. In this way, his photos are made not only to show the border zones of a secret power apparatus, but also to engage with the use of photography as an instrument of power.