If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map may be worth a million. Maps, infographics, and photographs blur the line between information and art, at once documenting the state of the world and presenting it in a visually dynamic way.

Unlike photographs, however, no map can claim to be a direct portrait of reality.

Every map, no matter how simple it appears, is shaped by the viewpoint and the choices of the person who made it. On top of that, every person who reads a map will interpret it differently than the next. Our interpretations of maps are influenced just as much by our perceptions and personal experiences as by what is actually on the page. For this reason, understanding subjectivity has become an important part of both geography and cartography.

Frank Jacobs has seen his share of subjective maps. For seven years, he has managed the Strange Maps blog, which features maps “too strange for the school atlas.” Each blog entry dissects the stories told—and sometimes hidden—by the featured map. For more than a year, Jacobs also blogged for the New York Times, a series called “Borderlines.”

Jacobs’ collection includes provocative and mind-bending maps of all types—cognitive maps, historical maps, cartograms, you name it. He has featured everything from ancient maps on cave walls to remotely sensed satellite maps, and no two pieces in his collection are alike.

Subjectivity and personal interpretation play huge roles in analyzing each map—and also help determine which maps Jacobs’ readers find interesting.

“We have this intimate relationship with maps,” he says. “That’s partly why we see things like accidental maps. People see maps in spots of paint on the sidewalk, or they empty their coffee and in the bottom of the cup, they see Africa. It’s almost like seeing Jesus on a piece of toast. People see the shapes of countries in all kinds of objects.”

Jacobs says the long history of cartography has led people to trust maps as a source of information about the world.

“We have this very visceral and primordial connection to cartography,” he says. “As a species, we made maps even before we invented writing. It’s our first language. In that sense, some aspects of cartography are innate—our ability to locate ourselves in space and to transfer that knowledge to and from maps.”

However, no matter how “innate” the human relationship to cartography, no map can present a completely unbiased picture of the world.

“A map is always a bit of a lie because there is always something that is not on the map,” Jacobs says. “For instance, the typical map is flat while the world is round; there’s already one whole dimension that’s missing. When you read a map, you’re ingesting the point of view of the mapmaker. A map is not as blindly objective as a photograph; it’s an artifact that has been crafted to tell you a story.”

No category of maps exemplifies this better than maps used for political propaganda. Throughout history, maps have been used to shape public opinion in support of a particular political message.

“There’s a great map that was published in TIME magazine during the Cold War, and the title is ‘Europe As Seen From Moscow.’ The map is centered on Moscow, but the perspective is such that Western Europe on the horizon looks much smaller, and Eastern Europe, which was communist at the time, looks much larger. It looks almost inevitable from the map that communism will run over Western Europe,” Jacobs says. “The point was to magnify the imminent threat of communism.”

How To Be a Critical Map Reader 

So, how can you learn to see through the little white lies in every map? According to Jacobs, the first step to becoming a critical map reader is to always question the intentions of the mapmaker.

“The main question that you can ask with any map is, ‘Why?’ Why did someone make this? What’s the point? What’s the story and who is telling it?” Jacobs says. “Every map is an attempt to convince you of something; it’s like an argument. It’s in your best interest to know who is trying to convince you.”

Beyond the decisions of individual cartographers, it’s also important to question the accepted practices that have become common across almost all maps.

“The fundamentals of mapmaking are conventions, and these conventions were set by someone because they were convenient for that time and place,” Jacobs says. “The fact that north is up and Europe is in the middle of most maps are just some of these conventions.”

To start dissecting conventional standards, take a look at maps that present the world “upside down,” show Asia in the center, or use different map projections. Maps like these offer different ways of understanding the world and a new perspective on the way different spaces relate to one another.

“Take any map that surprises you, that seems somehow ‘strange.’ Why does it stop you in your tracks? What is different about it? Can you relate why it attracts your attention to who made it, and to what purpose?” Jacobs says. “If cartography is the art of wrapping up a story in a map, then map reading is like a journey of discovery for that story.”

 

Between the Lines
Cartography turns the world upside-down.
ancient
Adjective

very old.

blog
Noun

(web log) website that contains online personal reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.

cartogram
Noun

representation of a region depicting the size of an object in relation to an attribute rather than land area.

cartography
Noun

art and science of making maps.

cave
Noun

underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

cite
Verb

to give as an example.

cognitive map
Noun

map that represents the image a person or group of people have of an area. Also called a mental map.

Cold War
Noun

(1947-1991) conflict between the Soviet Union (and its allies) and the United States (and its allies). The two sides never confronted each other directly.

convenient
Adjective

easy or available.

conventional
Adjective

expected or having to do with accepted standards or principles.

dissect
Noun

to carefully cut apart.

document
Verb

to keep track of.

dynamic
Adjective

always changing or in motion.

fundamental
Adjective

basic or primary.

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

historical map
Noun

representation of spatial information displaying sites of historical interest.

imminent
Adjective

likely to occur soon.

inevitable
Adjective

certain to happen, unavoidable.

infographic
Noun

visual representation of data. Also called information graphic or graphic.

innate
Adjective

based in instinct, not learned or experienced.

instrumental
Adjective

important.

interpret
Verb

to explain or understand the meaning of something.

intimate
Adjective

very personal or private.

magnify
Verb

to increase the apparent size of an object.

Noun

symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

map projection
Noun

method by which shapes on a globe are transferred to a flat surface.

perception
Noun

understanding or point of view.

perspective
Noun

representation of volume or depth on a flat surface.

photograph
Noun

image produced by the reaction of light and certain chemical substances on paper or another medium.

primordial
Adjective

having to do with the very beginning of something.

propaganda
Noun

information or ideas specifically intended to help or hurt the cause of an organization.

provocative
Adjective

stimulating of thought or emotions.

satellite map
Noun

representation of spatial information based on photographs or other images taken from above Earth's atmosphere.

subjectivity
Noun

state of mind recognizing the thoughts and motivations of the person (subject) considering an object or idea, and not the state of the object or idea being considered.

unbiased
Adjective

not prejudiced or favoring one specific outcome.

visceral
Adjective

having to do with deep, inward emotions or instinct.