Secret radio stations, V2 rockets, offshore tax havens: the photographic explorations of Lewis Bush
Lewis Bush is a London-based photographer whose work covers themes ranging from espionage and oligarchy to artificial intelligence and the manipulation of history by national governments. He has published a range of books, including “Metropole” (2015), which examines the murky world of offshore finance and property development in London, and “Shadows of the State” (2018), which looks into the possibility that foreign intelligence services are broadcasting seemingly random strings of numbers on radio stations across the globe. His widely exhibited images are held in a number of institutional and private collections. He is also a course leader of the MA in documentary photography at London College of Communications. We caught up with him to chat about the role photography can play in untangling the web of conflicting information that surrounds us all today.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start off by talking about my favorite project of yours: “Shadows of the State.” It concentrates on quite an odd subject that I just happen to have a mild obsession with. However, for the uninitiated, what’s it all about?
The short version is that it’s about these weird radio broadcasts from what people refer to as “numbers stations.” I discovered them when I was supposed to be doing something else, procrastinating, and fell down a Wikipedia hole. The term covers dozens of different stations and the main thing they have in common is that they consist of someone reading out lots of random numbers on air. It’s quite difficult to answer what they actually are, because no one has ever really confessed to operating them.
I think the most convincing answer, based on what we know about them, is that they’re used by intelligence agencies to send coded messages to undercover agents in enemy countries. I could go into why I think that, but it’s probably far too much information. There’s just a lot of circumstantial evidence that supports this explanation.
The book doesn’t conform to the classic definition of photojournalism. How do you go about presenting something so opaque — and non-visual — as a photographic work?
The idea was to try and accumulate any information I could about these stations, some of which was current, and some of which was historic. So, I started reading around. Some people listen to numbers stations as a hobby and have pieced a lot together and made some informed guesses as to where they come from and who operates them, which was also useful. One or two stations had already been pretty decisively located. I’d try and build up a kind of dossier of information about each one.
I was looking at lots of different sources: enthusiast websites, books, a lot of declassified documents, memoirs by former intelligence agents, anything that might touch on the subject. Once I felt I had as much as I was going to get for an individual station, I’d go to Google Maps and look at the area where the evidence pointed to a site being. Then, I’d think, “Does this match the description I’ve read?” Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t, and there was very, very rarely a smoking gun.
So, there are three kinds of imagery in the book. First, there are satellite images, extracted using a rather tedious and laborious process, from Google Maps. Second, there are Google Street View images of some sites. I included these because people kept asking me, “Why don’t you go visit these sites and take pictures of them?” I didn’t exactly want to show up and get arrested in North Korea for doing that, but there was another point to using satellite imagery. A lot of these sites were created at a time when they only had to be secret from ground view, so seeing them at that level would actually be very unrevealing. Now that ordinary people have access to satellite technology, you can see a lot more, if you look for it. Lastly, there are these rather weird images called spectrographs, which are visualizations of the broadcasts, representations of the radio signals themselves.
Yes, and you even included barcodes that link to some of the stations, which I thought was a really nice touch. Now, all this talk of espionage, militarism and satellites brings us nicely onto your forthcoming book “Wv.B,” which examines the life of a fascinating historical character. Wernher von Braun was a former SS officer and rocket engineer in Nazi Germany, who went on to work for NASA, developing the rockets that launched Explorer I, the United States’ first satellite. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
It actually grew out of “Shadows of the State.” During that project, I was reading quite a lot about satellite imagery, because I think it’s quite rash to use a photographic method or any kind of technology without really understanding a bit about where it comes from. As I was researching this, I came across this really weird image: the first photograph taken of the Earth from space. It was taken in 1947, which was kind of remarkable because that was 10 years before the launch of Sputnik, and 12 or 13 years before the launch of the first spy satellite. So, my immediate thought was, “Where did this come from?”
It turned out that it was taken by a V2 rocket, launched from Mexico by the U.S. military. That opened up this whole story of how Von Braun and other Nazi-era rocket specialists were recruited at the end of the Second World War, given, essentially, an exemption from post-war justice and brought to the United States to develop ballistic missiles for the U.S. Army and, later, to work for NASA.
It chimed with something that I was thinking about already: the militarization of space and the way that the aspiration of space being this kind of neutral domain hasn’t really been borne out. Von Braun was interesting to me because his life was so divided between these very military, violent uses of rocketry, and then these kind of — at least superficially — very civil and peaceful ones. As the project developed, it basically became clear that, despite things like the Apollo project being presented as peaceful and not overtly military, they were definitely geopolitical and all about a jockeying for position between states, much more than being about scientific discovery. So, yeah, that was the starting point for another four years down another rabbit hole.
So, what was your process for this project?
The bulk of it is composed of archival imagery from lots of different sources. There’s some from NASA, inevitably, some from the space agencies of other countries, some from various militaries. A lot of these images are held in the archives of various national museums. That was one half of the story. The other half were mostly pre-war and Second World War images, which again came from a variety of sources, including museum archives, but also a lot of personal, intimate photographs from people like Von Braun and people close to him, which had found their way onto the internet. Then, alongside that, I was also going to go to some of the key sites in the history of rocketry and photograph them. Initially, the plan was to go to the U.S., but the pandemic got in the way of that.
Before that kicked off, though, I was able to go to Germany, travel around and go to these places that are basically the cradle of space exploration, but are virtually forgotten today. I went to the place where the first manmade object in space was launched from. It’s this weird peninsula on the Baltic coast, called Peenemünde. I stood on the site where this huge event took place, and there’s nothing there. It’s just a forest full of bits of concrete, deer and unexploded bombs, and you just think, “Wow, this is the place where that happened, and it’s off people’s radar already.” I also had a plan to visit sites in the United States, but the pandemic made that very challenging, and I started to think the project didn’t need them — we already know that side of the story so well.
You’ve also looked into the world of artificial intelligence and machine learning, particularly computer vision. You’ve done that by referencing a pretty seminal work in photographic circles: John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing.” Again, this isn’t a traditional documentary photographic project. It actually takes the form of an app. Can you tell me a bit about it and what the ideas behind it are?
I should say that, at this stage, it’s kind of a work in progress. But, yes, “Ways of Seeing” is this book and BBC TV series from 1972, about art and a lot more. It’s about the idea that seeing is very political, that the way we’re taught to look and the way we look at things is very culturally constructed.
At the time, it was very influential. It took quite difficult ideas, for example from Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School, and ideas that were also then quite new and radical, like feminist theory. It packaged all of that stuff in a way that actually made it really accessible. The TV series was seen by millions of people and the book has sold millions of copies, too. There are, obviously, a lot of great things about it, but there was one area in which it seemed quite dated to me, in that it couldn’t have anticipated that we now live in a world where we’re not the only ones who see in that way. That’s not to say that machines see like us, but they do see in a way which is politically charged.
What interested me was to try and take some of Berger’s ideas, in terms of unpacking the politics of sight, but to apply them to computer vision systems. I wanted to use the same technology I was making a critique of, so I opted for augmented reality, which relies on a quite basic form of computer vision to work. The idea was that you would run the app and point your device at a copy of the original book. The app would then recognize the pages and, depending on which ones it was looking at, overlay different things on top of them, to create this kind of new book that only exists virtually.
I’ve been working on it for a few years, but I realized, as I was building the app, that the current technology is really at the limits of what I needed it to be able to do. In a couple of years, when augmented reality and smartphone technology have moved on, I think it will be more feasible to fully do what I want to do with it.
That’s interesting. Apps are constantly being updated and changed, so that means that this project could never be finished, in the way that it is when, say, you publish in book form.
The idea of an app is attractive in that sense, in that it could be quite organic and persistently evolving. But, in some ways, the nice thing about a book is you hit print and that’s it. It’s done. A line has been drawn.
It’s good that we’re talking about books now. With the Ways of Seeing Algorithmically app and, to a lesser degree, with “Shadows of the State,” you’ve integrated your work pretty seamlessly with contemporary technology. However, I always associate your practice with print. You’re a big advocate of the zine and books and have published quite a number of them. What draws you to print and what makes it so central to your work?
That’s an interesting question. I mean, I think it’s probably the kind of stuff I produce. I work with text a lot, as well as images. Of course, you can read text online, but reading a book is quite a different experience: there aren’t any distractions around you in the same way they are when you’re reading online. Partly, it’s the material and the relationship I want people to have with the work. Then there’s this romantic idea I have: that the book is something that you put out into the world and, after that, you have no idea of the kind of encounters it has. There are no analytics for a book. I also like the idea that, you know, my books could physically outlast me and still be out there when I’m in the ground.
So, there are two more projects that I want to talk about. “Metropole,” a book that deals with the machinations of the London property boom and the ways overseas wealth has altered the geography and the character of the city, and the ongoing Trading Zones which interrogates the murky world of offshore finance. There’s a clear thematic link between them and in terms of your approach, because they both involve a lot of photographs that you made yourself.
This is another good example of useless information that you build up going on to have a future life. I worked on “Metropole” between about 2014 and 2015. I’d kind of finished it and then I began Trading Zones — another of the numerous unresolved projects I’ve got on the go at any given time — but it wasn’t the plan for them to flow from one to the other. Basically, I applied for this residency in the Channel Islands in Jersey, which is an offshore financial center or tax haven. I didn’t expect to get it, because my proposal was for a project about finance on the island, which is a somewhat controversial topic.
It was an accident, but a happy one, in the sense that a lot of the knowledge that I’d accumulated about these complex financial products and instruments and dealings went hand-in-hand with it. It was interesting to go to the source, too. Some of the buildings I’d been looking at in “Metropole” were owned by shell companies registered in Jersey. So, it was weird to then go to the place where these assets were nominally held and to see that it was a complete fiction. Of course, there was no real person “owning” them in Jersey. They were controlled by someone probably thousands of miles away, or by another company in another jurisdiction.
As far as the images are concerned, I’m a photographer, by training and by profession. Its what I made my living from for years, but I don’t really feel that I have anything to prove as a photographer. I look at a lot of photography and often end up thinking that the person who has made it has put a lot of energy into trying to show how technically good they are, whereas, for me, I’m more interested in the idea of telling a compelling story in the best way I can than showing what I can do.
Aesthetically, Metropole was quite inspired by Japanese photography from the 60s and 70s, people like Daido Moriyama, who kind of rejected conventions and took pictures that were very grainy, blurry and went against what a lot of people consider good photographs. I was using double exposures, shooting at night and pushing the ISO as high as possible, with the aim of creating something quite unsettling and to emulate the sense of disorientation that you get walking around London. I don’t feel like I recognize my own city now, because of the changes that have swept through it.
Talking about aesthetics and techniques makes me want to ask a very quick question that you might hate me for. Do you see yourself as a documentarian or an artist and, actually, do those terms even have to be mutually exclusive?
They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I don’t consider myself to be an artist. I also have mixed feelings about the words “documentarian” and “documentary,” but they’re probably slightly better and more useful to me. It’s interesting that even John Grierson — the film-maker who kind of coined the term “documentary,” at least in English — was also very ambivalent about the word, but just felt that it was the best thing he had to describe what was then quite a new field. He also defined the documentary process as the “creative treatment of reality,” which I think is a great description of what I’m often doing. However, if I’m going to say what I am, I generally just say that I’m a photographer. Everyone has a relationship with photography and to say that you’re a photographer means something to them, whereas, if you say you’re an artist or a documentarian, that can be either meaningless or even quite threatening to some people.
Your work addresses a number of complex contemporary themes that affect all of our lives, from covert intelligence and global finance to technology and information flows — things that are all very familiar to Coda readers. We spend a lot of time trying to tease out these ideas in the form of written journalism. What role do you feel that photography has in illuminating them and cutting through the bewildering mess of information and disinformation surrounding them.
Well, I tend to use a lot of text in my projects, too. Obviously, text and photographs speak to people in very different ways. I like the fact that with text, you can really be very precise and pull apart ideas, but I also like the fact that images offer space for people to think about what they mean and pull them apart themselves, without me telling them what I think they mean.
One of the things I’m keen to do with my projects, even in a very modest way, is talk to people who wouldn’t necessarily think about these things. I like the fact that people like offshore finance workers or intelligence agencies, they’re interested in what people are saying about them. I think that natural curiosity is an opportunity to engage those people.
Obviously, most people buying my books probably feel quite similarly to me already and it’s very much a case of preaching to the converted. So, I think the real thrill or victory is when someone who doesn’t feel the same as me engages with the work — even if they still come away disagreeing with me. I like the idea of complicating these conversations and getting away from the binaries that dominate so much of today’s discourse. Yeah, I think for me, that’s what documentary photography can do.
To round up, I’ve got one final question: anyone who spends a bit of time with your work will definitely be able to see that there’s something that binds all of it together. They might have a hard time articulating exactly what it is, though. Do you want to have a go at doing that in a few words?
Oh, that’s easy. It’s all about power: what it is, who has it, how it works, how it circulates and how it affects all of our lives. That’s the thread, for me, at least, that runs through pretty much every project I’ve ever done.
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