In their most common form, government-sanctioned redactions obscure text: names and code names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers, the classified and top-secret—each a tiny black site housing a discrete, unknowable entity. For all of their apparent precision, each redaction expresses a set of underlying assumptions about identity and recognition, about the way we discipline noise into information.
These assumptions become particularly clear when they’re applied to the human form: bodies, faces, gestures, postures, clothes. How much of a person can one obscure, using traditional redaction techniques, before the obscured becomes unrecognizable?
You are looking at a series of images taken or displayed at the December 2012 retirement party of an Atlanta-based special agent at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They turned up in a cache of records about the party that were requested by USA Today reporter Brad Heath, who published several of the altered images on Twitter earlier this year.
Before providing the records to Heath, employees of the bureau’s information dissemination division carefully outlined, then excised, the heads and faces from every photograph taken at the retirement party, leaving behind stark and often oddly shaped voids.
A PowerPoint presentation that was apparently shown at the event provides an even eerier trip. Random bits of text—the artifacts, perhaps, of PowerPoint’s rudimentary animation feature—float around context-less images of women posing in bikinis:
Someone sleeping in a bed (near a superimposed Playboy magazine cover):
And whatever this is:
If you study these images carefully, certain meanings seem to bubble up—the special agent being honored, for example, appears to be a woman, and married to another agent:
In others, however, it’s impossible to tell what’s supposed to be redacted in the first place:
(What’s that lowermost rectangle there for?)
It’s risky, of course, to ascribe any essential meaning to images that have been deliberately wiped of it. But these pictures retain just enough definition and significance to make the project seem not entirely worthless. There’s still something there.