The idea for my film Cartefacts came from a conversation with my uncle who had just begun an MA in Cartography. Prior to this conversation, I had never really reflected on maps and assumed that they were merely factual, objective representations of terrain. However, after discussing the social science aspect of his course I began to see more and more the increasing relevance of cartography to the material I was studying in Anthropology.
During my final year of studies for my BA in Social Anthropology I had taken a great interest in post-modernism, and in particular discussions of representation. Critiques of ethnographic writing in the 1980s highlighted how the scientific styles of writing had served to obscure the role of the anthropologist in their own studies, ultimately presenting a fundamentally subjective interpretation of the objects of study behind a positivistic mask, an illusion of objectivity. As such the authors of Writing Culture, the seminal collection of essays on ethnographic writing published in the 1980s, advocated a more creative and literary approach to monographs (Clifford & Marcus, 1986). Furthermore, the discussion advocated the recognition of ethnographic representations as only partial truths, seen through the lens of an anthropological participant-observer themselves a product of certain ways of thinking and cultural biases. Interestingly, these reflections have played a large part in the formation of visual anthropology, which has sought to convey, through film, a more honest and transparent representation of ethnographic work.
During my discussions with my uncle, it became clear that post-modern cartography had experienced a similar moment of critical reflexivity, with striking parallels to anthropology’s own “crisis of representation”. This realisation was only further reinforced through my preparatory readings and subsequent interview with Dr. Alexander Kent and Dr Rob Fish. Like ethnographic writing, maps too have long been taken at face value. Something objective, simply reflecting a certain terrain or place. However, this ignored the fact that when deciding to map somewhere, certain aesthetic decisions inevitably have to be made. How the map is presented visually is an important decision to make, and one which when analysed can reveal significant traces of the maker within its design. For example, as Dr. Kent has explained in my interview with him, many maps produced during the colonial era focus specifically on highlighting natural resources of significant economic value.
Presently, there has been something of a nascent revolution in cartography. For example, certain moves towards small scale local mapping, authored by the inhabitants of the area in question. As Dr. Kent explains in the interview, through this process of mapping, residents can rediscover some sense of ownership over the space they inhabit, a point of great potential in a post-colonial world where communities subjected to decades of subjugation are still burdened by the legacy of imperialism.
Aside from reflections on the faux-objectivity of maps, I believe that maps may have great potential as a tool for ethnographic data collection. As noted, maps are inseparable from the person or peoples who have created it. In the process of aesthetic decision making, something of the author(s) is embodied within the map itself. Thus, once the map is created, it become an artefact, a cartefact, a visual, creative interpretation of a space. From this, I started to think that the use of mapmaking could be a very interesting addition to the various tools at the disposable of the anthropologist in the field. As such, I wanted to use the opportunity afforded to me as a film maker to test this hypothesis by commissioning some maps of my own.
Firstly, I attempted to make a map myself, from memory, of the village I spent my year abroad in, Aix-en-Provence. This experience quickly threw up some challenges to the process. This map, and the subsequent maps by Tom and Ben, were all drawn entirely from memory, with no visual cues of outlines to guide. This was a conscious decision I made as I did not want people to be perhaps guided by seeing a “truer” representation of the scale of the terrain they were to map. However, this made the process quite difficult, and necessarily reduced the detail able to be produced on the maps, as it is almost impossible to produce from memory every road or every landmark in detail. However, I came to appreciate this “limitation” as it seemingly encouraged more creativity in my informants and resulted in certain features significant to myself and my fledgling map makers being more prominent on the map itself. Furthermore, I specifically used an A4 size piece of paper as I felt that if the paper felt limited in space this might encourage important decisions over what to include or not, increasing the utility of the map for research purposes.
Ultimately, it was not my own attempt to interpret the map that revealed the most about the authors, but rather the subsequent discussions with them about the content of their works. The process itself seemed to encourage a certain degree of reflexivity about the space in which they inhabited, and the resultant conversations were very informative beyond just the knowledge of which places were significant to them. As such, this has reinforced my assertion that map making could be a great tool for ethnographic data collection. Note only is it a creating and slightly humorous process to go through with an informant which ultimately encourages fascinating and useful dialogue, but after the maps is completed you have it as a visual representation, something to publish within an ethnography, or in my case a film, for people to interpret in whatever way they wish.
Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. (eds.) (1986), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, California: University of California Press