Surveillance is never sexy, contrary to what decades of Hollywood films would have us believe. At worst, it is a violent violation of privacy and independence; at its most innocuous, it is boring, including hours of stake outs and trailing people, supposedly in the name of safety. 

While popular culture glorifies the spies, Las Carpetas, Christopher Gregory-Rivera’s photography exhibition currently on view at Abrons Arts Center, focuses on the surveilled. For nearly four decades, the Puerto Rican secret police, with support from the FBI, tracked the movements of local activists, who were part of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. The police and FBI would compile photographs, documents, even stolen books and other activist’s belongings, into a “carpeta” meaning file or binder. The contents of those files were then often used as the basis for prosecution, even execution. 

Installation view of Christopher Gregory-Rivera, Las Carpetas series (2014-2017), Abrons Arts Center, 2021

At the exhibition’s entrance, viewers are first confronted with a photograph of a sea of army green folders with white, typewritten labels, peeking out of a rusted gray metal file drawer. To the right of this initial image is another color photo of even more files, some half opened, some with labels falling off. 

Gregory-Rivera spent six years capturing the contents of these now declassified carpetas, and when they’re not in drawers, he trends to photograph them in stacks, like Jenga towers of wasted paper. The tall stacks demonstrate the sheer scale of the secret police’s reach, but the artist’s message is blunted by the lack of compelling visuals; it’s ultimately a photograph of manila folders. 

Christopher Gregory-Rivera, from Las Carpetas series (2014-2017)

This is the tension that sits at the heart of my experience of Las Carpetas: This period is a significant and overlooked part of US history, and the exhibit is a critical step in exposing the actions of both the mainland and Puerto Rican governments, but are pictures of folders, drawers, and file cabinets the most effective way to tell the stories of real people whose lives were needlessly impacted, and sometimes violently upended, by such surveillance? 

The most compelling parts of the exhibition are when Gregory-Rivera turns his camera away from the files, and towards people: photographs of activists at the airport, people caught mid-stride, and stark black-and-white images of a student and faculty strike at University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras Campus all lend human faces and further depth. Below these scenes sits a numbered list of names, written on a sheet torn from a legal pad. At first glance the list of names is just that. According to the exhibition guide, at least one of the individuals pictured was captured and killed by police nearly three years after the picture was taken. Equally important is Gregory-Rivera’s short video documentary, which features interviews with a few of the activists. Like the images of the activists and the strike, it gives the rest of the exhibit much needed human stories, and faces. 

Christopher Gregory-Rivera, from Las Carpetas series (2014-2017)

While the police were able to bury their violence in a sea of paperwork, Las Carpetas works to resurface some of those misdeeds. Meticulous accounting aside, Gregory-Rivera’s work is most rewarding when it leaves that paperwork behind, instead focusing on the lives each folder affected.

Las Carpetas continues through March 14 at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, at Pitt Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Natalia Viera Salgado. 

Ilana Novick writes about art, culture, politics, and the intersection of the three. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Based, Brokelyn, Policy Shop, The American Prospect, and Alternet.