Everything Is Surveilled: In Conversation with Laura Poitras

The artist and documentarian on Edward Snowden, her “9/11” trilogy and her chilling exhibition at the Whitney Museum.


In the spring of 2013, Laura Poitras needed help. The journalist, artist, and maker of vérité-style documentaries about the post-9/11 world had already moved from New York to Berlin to escape the U.S. government, which over a six-year span had detained her upwards of 40 times in American airports.

Now she was about to give it motivation to tighten the noose: She was in communication with an unknown source who wanted to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency’s deep surveillance of American citizens. But her typical filmmaking process was being stymied because her source was reluctant to go on camera.

She knew the film wouldn’t work without a human face. Previous films – 2006’s My Country, My Country tells of the Iraq war through the eyes of an Iraqi doctor; 2010’s The Oath follows two former aides to Osama bin Laden to investigate the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay – taught her the power of empathy to transmute stifling geopolitical issues.

So she contacted Jay Sanders, a curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and asked how she might turn her activities into an art installation. By then, Edward Snowden had agreed to appear on camera.

“Jesus,” Poitras wrote in her journal on May 8, 2013, as the Snowden story was coming into full view. “My life shall soon be over or become very public. I should prepare myself.” A week later she added, “I should also destroy this f—ing notebook.” Two weeks after that, she flew to Hong Kong and locked herself in a hotel room with Snowden and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, her reporting partner who helped leak the NSA documents as Poitras shot the tense, gripping footage that would form the core of 2014’s Citizenfour. That film was the last leg of her “9/11 trilogy” and won her an Academy Award.

Poitras’s diary during the Snowden leak has never been published until now, as part of the catalogue for Astro Noise, her solo exhibition that opened last week at the Whitney. It’s a fascinating artifact that taps a line into her brain at the time, which was near-feverish with paranoia—she couldn’t sleep, her hearing was going, and her vision was beginning to telescope. She was re-reading 1984, which surely didn’t help. The stress left under riddled with doubt: “I have no perspective,” she observed on January 12, 2013. “Am I being led down a dead end? Being played by some rogue actor?” she asked on March 26. In between, on February 26, she sounded exasperated: “Why the f— am I making long-form documentaries when other forms are so much more energizing?”

“As an artist, I needed a way to express the reality of what I was experiencing,” Poitras, now 51, explained to me late last week. We were sitting with Sanders in a conference room at the Whitney four floors below Astro Noise, which swallows the entire eighth floor. “I love long-form storytelling,” she continued. “Cinema can propel people on a journey, but you have to make sacrifices. I wanted to be released by the boundary of time. I wanted to work in a way where the editing is done by the viewer, not me.”

Which is why she and Sanders, with whom she’d worked in 2012 for the Biennial, picked up their conversation again after Poitras left Hong Kong. When I visited the exhibition the day before I met with Poitras, I felt courted on a visceral level. As with her films, which are told stylishly, the installation immediately engages the senses. The six works that open the show look from a distance not so different from the color field abstract paintings hanging elsewhere in the museum, but they turn out to be photographs of encrypted data intercepted by a top secret surveillance post in Cyprus.

Inside, the lighting is as dark as in a movie theater. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the two-part video projection: On the front of the screen, there’s footage of onlookers’ faces at Ground Zero, which Poitras shot immediately following 9/11; on the back, film of American soldiers interrogating two men captured in Afghanistan about a month later—in Poitras’s arrangement, literally and figuratively the flip-side to the tragedy. A voice could be heard singing the national anthem, mournfully. The mood was set.

At the next installation, “Bed Down Location,” I laid on my back on a raised platform, looking up at a video of the starry night sky over Sana’a, Yemen, where Poitras spent over a year while making The Oath. The view is undeniably beautiful; the bedding feels plusher than it needs to be. Together, it’s almost enough to inure someone to the reality of the American drones buzzing overhead, invisible to the eye.

“Sana’a is beautiful,” Poitras explained. “It would be wrong if you made it ugly. But I don’t think of beauty as something to be instrumentalized.”

Her voice had a flint edge to it. Poitras, who comes off as cautious but earnest, had taken issue earlier, when I referred to the unexpected attractiveness of her art as adroit “packaging” of the content inside, which is made up of hard, sometimes ugly truths. “I would resist any description of craft or cinema as packaging,” she’d protested. “Through beauty you can get to emotive places. It draws people in, and hopefully makes them interested.”

What really makes people interested in anything, of course, is when it appeals to their own self-interest. This is something Poitras understands instinctively: After I emerged out of a narrow hallway with windows—peepholes, really—onto copies of classified NSA and CIA documents (including a report by a former interrogator at an Abu Ghraib prison), I arrived at a video monitor. It took only a second until I was hit by the realization that it showed a live stream from an infrared camera embedded in the ceiling of “Bed Down Location,” where I had just been minutes prior. I had laid down, gotten comfortable, and I had been surveilled.

Watching the unsuspecting visitors onscreen, I felt a chill. It lingered with me the next day as I talked with Poitras and Sanders. I sat across from them, facing the conference room’s glass walls. At some point, the foot traffic on the museum’s staircase just outside the room came to a standstill. A group of schoolchildren grew restless, and turned their gaze on us. The kids pointed, smiled, waved. Poitras, with her back to them, couldn’t see them, but they were watching her.

Eventually, she became aware of their presence, turned around and broke into a smile, but not before a few lines from her voiceover that ends Astro Noise sprang into my head: “After returning to the United States, I was placed on a government watchlist and detained and searched every time I crossed the U.S. border. It took me 10 years to find out why.”

Photos: Everything Is Surveilled: In Conversation with Laura Poitras

ANARCHIST: Data Feed with Doppler Tracks from a Satellite (Intercepted May 27, 2009), 2016. Courtesy the artist.

ANARCHIST: Israeli Drone Feed (Intercepted February 24, 2009), 2016. Courtesy the artist.

Still. O’Say Can You See, 2001/2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Laura Poitras filming the NSA Utah Data Repository construction in 2011. Photograph by Conor Provenzano.