Nolle Mason’s Series on Illegal Immigration Makes Digital X-Rays Analog

All image manipulations by Noelle Mason. Used with permission.

“I am an outsider using photography, a non-native, or immigrant to the medium,” explains Noelle Mason. At her core, Noelle is an artist with political motivations. Yet, through her manipulation of surveillance images, she has been making a statement in the world of photography, and people are listening. Her series, X-Ray Vision Vs. Instability, took first place at the Lens Culture Art Awards, giving her wide-spread recognition. In her work, she tackles the tough topic of immigration – humanizing people who tend to be stripped of their humanity. In a somewhat chilling set of manipulated photographs, Noelle opens up our eyes and allows us to look deep inside the truth. She holds a looking glass over a complex issue, delivering the topic to us in a complex way. For that reason alone, we had to speak to her to learn more about her method of working.

“If my work seems unorthodox, it is because I never really considered myself a photographer.”

Phoblographer: Hey Noelle! Where did the energy to concentrate your focus on this project come from?

NM: My interest in surveillance started many years ago as an undergraduate at the University of California Irvine (Go Anteaters!) I was in a seminar class on art and technology and ended up doing several projects about surveillance in one way or another. X-Ray Vision vs. Invisibility started 15 years ago as a collection of images that I started seeing popping up on border patrol and Minutemen websites. I grew up just on the other side of the Tijuana border crossing in a city called Chula Vista. My father worked for the San Diego Police department and was stationed on the border for some time as well, so this was very often a topic of conversation around the dinner table, not to mention that going through a border checkpoint was a daily occurrence for me for some time. People might not know this about the border in California, but the checkpoints are all over San Diego county, not just at the actual border, so you might have to declare your citizenship to Border Patrol multiple times a day just to get to school and back. The intersections of surveillance, machine vision, and border issues have made this source of material very compelling to me.

Phoblographer: For those unaware, please explain the process you employ to create the images? From creating them to editing them, etc.

NM: The images are taken by Border Patrol and customs and often published on their own websites as well as on the websites of vigilante groups/ Reddit etc. I have spent many hours scavaging the internet to find large enough images to use for this project. Once I have selected an image to reproduce, I take it into editing software to crop it and clean it up. Sometimes the images are warped as well, either by the backscatter x-ray machine or for some other reason. The backscatter x-rays are not meant to be printed or copied so many of the ones that get out into the public are photographs of screenshots that someone took with their smartphone. After editing the image, I will create a digital negative using only red ink (red ink is more UV resistant than black.) This negative is then used to make a contact print using a UV light source.


“My work in the past has been quite critical of photography and how it is instrumentalized for social and political control.”

I mix my own cyanotype chemical and coat my own paper, so that is done about two hours before I want to print the image. I do this so the paper has time to dry but is not so old that it is difficult to wash out. An exposure takes about three minutes with a 3000 Watt lamp. After the paper is exposed, I wash it with water and a splash of hydrogen peroxide for about five minutes. It’s a great process because the chemical is a lot less toxic than many other photographic processes.

Phoblographer: Do you feel it’s fair to say you have an unorthodox approach to photography? Where do you think your style comes from, and why do you prefer it to more conventional photographic practices?

NM: If my work seems unorthodox, it is because I never really considered myself a photographer. My background is in sculpture, installation, and performance. So my use of photography is informed much more by the history of these other mediums than it is in the history of photography. My work in the past has been quite critical of photography and how it is instrumentalized for social and political control. I came to photography more as a critic of photographs rather than as a picture maker. This might help explain why I don’t use images of my own making. I am much more interested in repurposing images than I am adding new ones to the world.

Phoblographer: With any project you embark on, what tends to be your primary objective?

NM: My main objective is in creating objects that make people feel differently about issues they think they already understand. I want to bring people in closer proximity to the images and issues of our time. To give people a sense of tactility and emotional resonance that we get from objects in the world that share a space with us.

“My work in the past has been quite critical of photography and how it is instrumentalized for social and political control.”

Phoblographer: We believe an artist can consume their work. When you sit with the series X-Ray Vision vs. Invisibility, what emotions and thoughts does it bring to the surface?

NM: I want the images and objects in X-Ray Vision to communicate a type of fragility. I am using a lot of domestic materials and processes to make this work (including cyanotype as it was once used to make architectural blueprints.) This allows the viewer to feel a familiarity with the object, as well as think about the construction of the image. For a long time, the narrative around illegal immigration was that it was mainly men who were coming across the border. My process, in some ways, feminizes these images. Feminization can have an effect; it can make the viewer feel differently about the subjects within the images – making them feel protective or empathetic.

“A change in presentation or medium can reverse roles and bring us closer, in effect humanizing the subject.”

What are the necessary conditions for the construction of such an image? Who is making the aesthetic choices when these images are made? We often think of surveillance images as being made without an author. I am arguing in one sense that this belief is problematic and that these images are not only authored but carry a huge amount of baggage with them.

Phoblographer: For us, when we look at this series, we feel like we are looking into the souls of people within it. Do you want to humanize these people – the same people who often have their humanity taken away?

NM: Yes. I am very interested in humanizing the subjects of these images. This project is very much concerned with the way we can use photography as both a means of othering and distancing us from one another. A change in presentation or medium can reverse roles and bring us closer, in effect humanizing the subject.

Phoblographer: The work was recognized at the Lens Culture Art Awards. How do these kinds of accolades make you feel as an artist?

NM: The short answer is validated. I am the kind of artist who works predominately alone in my studio. And who makes things that not everyone is so interested in taking home with them. For many, my work is too dark or political. Sometimes it can be difficult to continue to have your work build up around you. These kinds of awards can make you feel like you are, indeed, on the right track. That someone out there understands the connections you are trying to make.

Phoblographer: Your work has a message. Once the work is done, what steps do you take to ensure the message is heard?

NM: This work is very much about having a real-life experience with it. It lives beyond the making process as it tours in exhibitions both nationally and internationally. This work is about image-making and the history of photographic representation – as is most of my work. In that way, it never really ends, as there is always work to do. The message is not direct in the way that propaganda is, that’s intentional. I do not want to have this work ‘read’ that way. I am much more interested in a less didactic/dualistic method of communication.

Phoblographer: Are you planning for 2020 yet? What’s your focus going forward?

NM: I am working on several exhibitions right now and am looking forward to making some sculptures in addition to more cyanotypes. I have started making very large images of the trucks. The first of which I just finished and is 24 feet long and eight feet high. I am looking forward to working with this medium on a much larger scale and in a more experimental way.

Be sure to visit Noell’s website to see more of her work.