Or something. The story is this: an industrial development project gets caught out because of a submission made to the government regulatory agency which included a map that neglected to show a rather large river. Said project will likely impact the river, the fishes in it, the folks that like chasing them fishes, etc, etc. The official reason: a matter of scale, a quirk in the mapping data, an unintentional omission, quickly amended.
The story appears on the page of the newspaper and it looks like this. Now on the same page, over and to the left, a paid ad depicts aerial photos of the nearby city, circa 1967 & today. We see a shoreline then and now, a small coastal town on the rise. Perhaps we feel impressed by this story of change and growth, this heritage moment. The ad is brought to by… well, yep, the same developer. It looks like this.
Okay, sympathy for the Devil time. I don’t mean to insinuate some nefarious conspiracy here. Yep, mapping geeks can make mistakes. Even monumentally dumb ones. And yes, their bosses also want to get a warm fuzzy glow to go with their logo, so they’ll sponsor some community feel-goods. All part of the game. But the irony of it all still smacks me, good and hard.
And it takes me back to this book. It’s called How to Lie with Maps and it’s a classic little tome that found its way on to my thoughtful drivel radar during an otherwise tedious class back in the university days, all about the use of mapping software, or “GIS”. The basic premise is that we have no choice but to lie. Goes like this: smushing out flat the bumpy sphere of Earth obliges all kinds of distortions:
There are many others. Distortion, fabrication, imperialist cartography, oh my!
But there’s another level to it. As with photos, maps say something about the value we place on our experience of places. It’s no surprise the details are strongest closest to home base. The places and faces we hold most dear are those whose contours are etched most clearly in our maps and memories. Beyond, the rest is vague and full of monsters and mystery, innit? Terra incognita. Or data insufficient, if you prefer.
But hey, it’s all fair game, right? People can skew their depiction of reality to suit their values and interests, whatever. Might as well have fun with it (try here or here). If having values is lying, then so be it, we gotta lie.
This should be terra cognita for photographers. Approach a subject as honestly as you think you can, it’s no good – your choice of the point of view, the light, what you crop in or leave out… it’s all about manipulating the viewer into accepting your version of reality, right? Or maybe your client’s.
Maybe, I dunno. Back to the river, that question of scale. It’s a big river and it looks pretty good in the right light. Actually it’s pretty hard to miss.
So the other day I’m watching these pink salmon hurl themselves upstream, and I’m thinking ‘they just don’t understand the scale of what they’re up against’, but that doesn’t stop them and somehow they’ll make it up that river. More than once, this river has reminded me of the scale of things.
In the end I guess I’m not interested in telling lies with photos, or pretending to tell the Truth, whatever that would be. I just want to tell a story that suggests what this place means to me. And I’ll distort that if I need to. There. That’s my hidden agenda.