“Really, it was only in the Snowden revelations that we realised how often these agencies don’t act in our best interest,” says Lewis Bush. “In some ways I hope that a project like this can make people think about how these abstract but very powerful forces in the world can be visualised when you find the right strategy.”
He’s talking about his new project, Shadows of the State, a new photobook that investigates and exposes mysterious broadcasts dating back to the Cold War. Bush has spent the past two years seeking out the sources of these broadcasts, covert sites across the globe from North Korea and Russia to Washington and Cuba. Assembling a collection of archival spy satellite imagery, high resolution satellite maps, and visual recreations of the broadcasts called spectrograms, Bush is creating a multi-platform project that should appeal to photographers, audiophiles, history enthusiasts, and anyone with a healthy mistrust of authority.
Set to be published by Brave Books, the book version will include 60 images plus vivid descriptions of each of the 30 included stations, some of which still broadcast to this day. The reason for these broadcasts is still hazy, but it’s widely believed they were used by intelligence agencies in the Cold War to send coded messages to undercover agents.
Bush spent two years undertaking deep research into the “number stations”, engaging with communities of radio listeners, Cold War experts and others to create a document that could bring this history to a wider audience. Once the bulk of the research was completed, Bush created the images using his computer, part-motivated by his belief that photography should not be limited to what’s captured on camera.
“I didn’t exactly fancy going to North Korea, and doing it from my desk also fit with the economic process of the project,” he says. “I don’t have the money to do that kind of big elaborate project. Plus, I think it’s important in the world we live in at the moment that photographers think locally and economically.
“I was interested in trying to make the sounds into something visual,” he continues. “I’m trying to get away from representing things that are just visible. We often go after the same subject matter because we know we can just take a picture of it. The trouble with that though is that some things get quite literally ‘over exposed’ while other things are neglected.”
“The spectrograms are basically these indecipherable images,” he continues. “Swirling shapes and things like that. They are representations of the radio signals themselves. They serve a purpose in showing how the stations operate and show things that wouldn’t necessarily be audible but are hidden in the signals.
“They were just a way of showing you how these sites were so often constructed to be inconspicuous, to not be visible at ground level,” he says. “They were often behind these high fences and hedges and things like that. In the 1950s and 60s when these places were built there was no anticipation that one day the public would have access to imaging satellites.
“What’s fascinating,” he adds. “Is how we can look at the emergence of satellite imagery and how it’s gone from being this insanely sophisticated, secretive thing to being something we all have regular use of. Somehow though, they remain secretive in their use by intelligence agencies.”
The photobook will be accompanied by an in-depth website featuring content and extras that did not, or could not, make it into the book. It serves to add to the project’s already multi-disciplinary and multi-targeted nature, and will help attract new audiences who will come to it from different angles of interest. For example, stalwart electronic act 808 State’s Graham Massey has contributed music to coincide with the book’s release.
“I love photo books, and I was always very keen that this project would be a book,” Bush explains. “But there are a lot of things in photography that they can’t necessarily touch upon. And they tend to have small audiences. The website will give us a chance to tell a broader story. If you imagine the book as the core, the website is a way of expanding and exploring other issues around the accountability and necessary transparency of power.”
With talks lined up with the likes of Columbia Global Centers and the IC-Visual Lab, Bush intends to keep expanding his knowledge in this area – and also to keep publicising it. “I’m just trying to think about one facet of power, and the side of democracy that is so rarely held accountable,” he says. “There’s a thing about reminding these organisations that the general public are watching them.”
Lewis Bush will speak alongside Debi Cornwall on Monday 13 November for Columbia Global Centers in Paris. https://globalcenters.columbia.edu/events/photography-age-global-surveillance-and-perpetual-wars … And in Bristol for the IC-Visual Lab on 23 November. https://icvl.co.uk/shadows-state-lewis-bush/
Shadows of the State will be published by Brave Books in December https://store.lewisbush.com/product/shadows-of-the-state