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Confessions of a Mapmaker

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Philippe Rekacewicz is the geographer-cartographer at Le Monde Diplomatique, an online / paper monthly that focuses on international affairs and development issues, has written a piece entitled “Confessions of a Mapmaker.” The article is available in both French and English, although a subscription is required. Those who are cartographers will view the article as more of a sharing of experience than as a confession to some of the hidden secrets of cartography.

He writes of seemingly innocuous items on a map - a name, a boundary - that can have a very different impact on different people. For instance “the name of the sea separating South Korea and Japan has been a source of friction for years. Korea calls it the East Sea, Japan the Sea of Japan . . . . To avoid trouble, and endless letters from embassies, cartographers often leave out the name altogether.” Maps, he goes on to say, “merely reveal what map-makers or their superiors want to show. They inevitably present a truncated, partial, even deliberately misleading picture of reality.”
“We map-makers must make a point of demolishing the illusion that there can be an official, universally accepted representation of the world’s political divisions. There is no such thing as the right map showing the approved version of a country. Finding the relevant form of cartographic expression is a constant challenge. Each approach has its own truth, backed by a rationale, but there are no rules nor is there a supreme authority to which to turn in search of easy answers. No one has the final word on what are only intellectual constructs, inspired by a culture, history and geography.”
Maps are also pictures and owe much to art. Cultural and environmental conditions may predispose a cartographer to use one colour over another.
“Look at maps of Africa produced in Europe and you will see they make considerable use of yellow ochre and dark green, to represent the continent’s dry dusty savannah and its dense equatorial forest. But it is apparent from a brief tour of the markets of Ouagadougou or Bamako that Africa’s true colours are much more vivid. A primary schoolteacher in Chad, obliged to use textbooks imported from France, once complained to me: ‘There is something wrong. The maps are so pallid. It’s almost as if they were sick.’”
Some of Rakewicz’s work is available for viewing on Le Monde Diplomatique’s website.

4 Responses to “Confessions of a Mapmaker”

  1. Anonymous moon 

    it was such a relief to read the cartographer words!
    it was poetic and practical, engaged and sensitive in the same time -and depicted my sentiment of that fact that a map no matter how "accurate" is a subjective representation, though legitimate as any other...

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