The traditional photo essay is something we often search for to inform ourselves on global news. For over a century, photojournalism and documentary photography have provided us with an immediately legible visual rundown of international stories, from political events to natural disasters. But the problem with this format is that it often becomes so internalized that we barely react to the images, dulling their intended impact. We consume photography on a given topic, only to push it aside and forget about the story as we move onto the next.
In order to overcome the limitations of these classic stylings, artist Noelle Mason creates a different type of visual work to address the lived experience of undocumented immigrants in the USA. Searching through online databases of digital images, including “backscatter” x-ray photographs, she appropriates seemingly mundane, technical shots and develops them into her own unique pieces. Intrusive x-rays from Border Patrol are printed as cyanotypes, referencing the technical foundation of photography, and are then brought together with hand-woven tapestries that depict areas of conflict at the US-Mexico border—photographs originally made by a satellite.
The multimedia project, titled X-Ray Vision vs. Invisibility, was selected as the First Place Winner in this year’s LensCulture Art Photography Awards. In her submission, Mason included two chapters from this project, titled Backscatter Blueprint and Ground Control. We caught up with the artist to discuss how her interest in vision technologies began, and why she thinks it’s important to stray from traditional uses of photography to tell this important story to the world.
LensCulture: What are your earliest memories of photography’s impact on your creativity? Were you working in other mediums, or did you always have a special connection with photography specifically?
Noelle Mason: After reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and taking a theoretical class about surveillance during my undergraduate studies, I became increasingly interested in concepts surrounding surveillance. Since those initial encounters with the topic, surveillance imagery, dataveillance and machine vision have continued to be a central focus of my work. But until recently, most of my projects were not photographic in nature. My connection to photography has more critical roots, as I often find it to be disappointingly flat, manipulative, and exclusively ocular.
When I first started using photography in my work, I used surveillance cameras in performance installations, and videos and still photography as documentation of sculptural performances. I then began incorporating found imagery into hand-woven and embroidered objects. I see the use of photographic processes as an extension of my sculptural practice, which takes the medium of photography itself as the subject matter.
The cyanotypes in the body of work called Backscatter Blueprint are photographs that refer to a different kind of photography, and are usually exhibited alongside works that appropriate images in other hand-made ways, resulting in stitcheries, tapestries or objects. The materiality is important to me, because I think it holds an emotional meaning that shapes our understanding of an image. When you show a photograph next to a hand-embroidered sculpture of the same image, it pushes you to think about the intentionality of the maker. This is important because on their own, photographs can sometimes mask their intention, which is detrimental and manipulative towards the people looking at them.
LC: Speaking of all these different ways of presenting images, X-Ray Vision vs. Invisibility is a larger project made up of a few different chapters and mediums. Did you always plan to have these different components, or was that mosaicking something that came to you naturally?
NM: As an artist who comes from a sculptural background, where medium and meaning are inseparable, it is natural for me to be a bit of a philanderer where medium is concerned, and to naturally pursue different types of image and object-making. I like making these rub up against each other, highlighting their individual histories as well as their connections.
LC: Before we get into more details about one of those components, Backscatter Blueprint, how did you come up with the idea for the chapter called Ground Control? What was your research process like, and how did that lead into your creative process and making the work?
NM: I saw an exhibition of tapestries by a group of artisans from Mexico called the Taller de Gobolinos, and was completely mesmerized by them. From that point on, I searched for an image or series of images that I could meld with this group of artisans. I had already begun the stitcheries that eventually became the series called Coyotaje, which are embroideries of infrared and backscatter x-rays of people being smuggled across the US-Mexico border.
Having this project under my belt, and recognizing that the Taller de Gobolinos were located in Mexico, I knew that the images I needed to work with should somehow reference the border. One day, while I was in a googling rabbit hole, I found my way to NASA’s website for the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER), where I came across an image of Mexicali (or Calexico), and I immediately knew that I had found my images.
LC: All of this embroidery and tapestry work is such an interesting way to use photography. You focus on making the digital image into a unique object through other forms of materiality. Why is this important for you? Why is the uniqueness of a photographic object important?
NM: It’s less about the uniqueness of the object and more about the objecthood of the object, if that makes any sense. I am interested in how we relate to images, and how the medium in which an image is transmitted affects the image itself. Record lovers understand that when they listen to a record instead of a digital file, they are listening to a less fidelius version of the recording, but the vinyl itself adds something warm and human to the recording that is inexplicably attractive. I am using craft processes to ask questions about what the digital world does to us as humans. In some ways, it turns us into one big eyeball. I am interested in channeling the other parts of the body and our senses, in addition to the eye, to determine the ways we can use these to access images.
LC: Tell me about how this materiality is incorporated into Backscatter Blueprint. Did you conceive of this work before or after Ground Control? How do the two chapters feed into one another?
NM: I became interested in the cyanotype process when I saw it at the University of South Florida’s printmaking atelier called GraphicStudio. I teach in the school’s Sculpture Department, and the artisans at the printmaking atelier have made beautiful work for artists like Christian Marclay and Sandra Cinto. I had been collecting and using the backscatter imagery since 2008, when I started putting together the overarching X-Ray Vision vs. Invisibility project. Back then, there were not many images of this nature circling around the Internet, so I was embroidering all the images I found by hand.
But with the massive increase in surveillance on the border, these backscatter machines became more common, and the bank of images increased to a point where it was unrealistic to assume I would be able to embroider all of them. I also started realizing that the series needed to include a photographic process of some type, as a way of bringing the history of photography into the conversation. Cyanotypes were the perfect fit for the imagery that is created by backscatter machines. The images have an architectural structure that relates to the historical uses of this process, and I love that unlike other forms of photography, a cyanotype has this ability to breathe—it can lighten up and darken down, and then lighten up again depending on the amount of light it’s exposed to at any given time.
I also think it is interesting that prussian blue, the color name for cyanotype blue, is used orally as medication for radiation poisoning. Cyanotypes have allowed me to play with scale on a level that was impossible with the embroidery work. For example, I just finished a cyanotype of one of the truck pieces, and it is 24 ft long and 8 ft high. This dramatic change in scale has a profoundly different effect on the viewer’s body. It can envelop them in a way that the smaller works cannot.
LC: Now let’s talk about the images themselves, which are not your own. What are some of the sources you draw your imagery from?
NM: I find many of the images on Border Patrol or commercial security websites. The other source of imagery for this body of work is from vigilantes, such as the Minutemen, who take it upon themselves to track down and record people coming across the border. The Minutemen and people like them fetishize and traffic this kind of imagery. Images may also be taken from editorial sources. The short answer is that it takes lots and lots of googling.
LC: How do you reconcile working with images that were not originally of your own making?
NM: I have honestly never been an image-maker, and I’ve always worked from found or appropriated imagery, so working in this way has never really been a struggle for me. I come from the world of sculpture, where the found object has been accepted as the artist’s prerogative since Duchamp (or Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, depending on who you ask) first put a urinal in a gallery and called it art. As far as I’m concerned, there are enough people making images without me adding to the pile. I have other things to say about images that don’t involve me taking them.
LC: That being said, what do you want your audience to take away from this work? How do you hope to impact them through your photo-objects?
NM: I want them to have an emotional reaction to the work that is non-binary. These images are usually editorialized in a way that creates a narrative that confirms a political point of view. Surveillance imagery can be really dehumanizing, and I hope that by changing the medium, the work becomes an advocatation for the humanity of the people being transported. I am also interested in the historical nature of surveillance imagery, and how these new vision technologies continue to reinforce a colonial worldview.