Space, disappointment and the visual
The sense of betrayal which has surrounded the revelations that some of the most enduring images of the twentieth century have been staged, such as Doisneau’s kissing couple in post-war Paris and Capa’s Spanish Civil War photo of ‘The Falling Soldier’, are in part, testament to the varying degrees of suspension of disbelief upon which different visual forms rely. Both photographs and maps attempt to convey a ‘truth’ about a particular space in time, but try as maps might to impose a view of reality it is hard to think of an analogue in the cartographic world for these great ‘deceptions’, if that is what they are. This is not to say that maps are somehow fundamentally more honest; not at all. The methods are not neutral and cartography has acted as part of the imperial toolkit of ‘totalising classification’. The point I am trying to make is that it is hard to envisage the same feelings of disappointment arising from any map as it did from those pictures. Perhaps this is because, whatever their purpose, we cannot avoid the fact that maps are always, explicitly and without exception, an abstraction of reality.
My particular interest is in the possibilities of mapping and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in attempting to visualise social change. At CRESC, this interest revolves around two projects within Theme 5, the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) and a new programme of research involving Andy Miles (CRESC) and Laurence Brown (History), which will explore the impact of post-war comprehensive redevelopment policies upon the socio-economic fortunes and ethnic composition of inner-city Manchester. The aim is to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of segregation in this context, which goes beyond the traditional social science emphasis on residence.
The GBCS is led by Mike Savage and Fiona Devine and is a collaboration with the BBC, which in 2011 hosted a web survey to find out more about the economic resources, cultural interests and social networks of the British public. We have data on over 170,000 respondents across more than 175 social, economic and cultural indicators, making it the largest survey of its type ever conducted. Critically, we have information on where respondents to the survey live, and due to their size of the sample, we are able to analyse the dataset with a high degree of spatial granularity to assess the differences between individual towns, cities and districts.
Fairly recently and in a different piece of work, I mapped the deaths of individuals who died in political killings during the Troubles in Belfast, and whose deaths could reasonably be described as ‘random’. By ‘random’, these were instances in which the evidence suggests that the individual who died was not specifically chosen and that their identity was unknown to their attacker. They were killed, in most part, because they were in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’, a phrase which is a grimly recurrent motif of newspaper accounts, coroner’s reports and police evidence relating to these victims. This might appear at first to be horribly reductive, but constructing that single crude image were the back stories of hundreds of individuals which captured just something of the temporal, spatial and social complexity that determines how we interact in so many different ways with urban space: the missed last bus, the time of day, the short cut home, the misplaced bravado of youth, the naivety of the returned migrant, the disarming effects of alcohol and so on. It made me think that, as a form of depiction, we should rightly be aware of what can be absent from the map, but we should also be mindful of what can be conveyed, be that explicit or implicit.