Beyond Illustration: Visualization as a mode of argument and a form of creative performance in the discipline of geography


Geographers commonly employ visuals in the classroom and at professional conferences to assist in illustrating their research. While the discipline uses a great variety of visual devices in this endeavor, there is also a tendency to privilege the textual over the visual owing to a long standing distrust of visual images as suspect illusions. Visualization, it is argued, can move beyond illustration by emphasizing the human powers of imagination and performance that exists, in particular, in the dialogue between the presenter, the audience and the image of lecture space. Using a series of examples, it is shown that the process of visualization, like the use of other evidence and textual discourse, can be effectively interrogated where visualization can act as mode of argument through cognitive process and comparative practice. The paper concludes that visualization can provide a synthetic approach where the textual and the visual are used in collaboration in scholarly, creative and persuasive discourses in journals, the classroom and conference sessions.


This article is based on the notion that geography is a visual discipline and that while visuals are widely used in constructing and disseminating geographic knowledge they also represent a point of anxiety and ongoing debate within the discipline[1] (Rose 2003, Gregory 1994). As such, it is argued here that the discipline needs to interrogate more vigorously how visuals are used and interpreted. Indeed, offering visual evidence and the visuals themselves should not be accepted as neutral acts nor bias-free representations, but instead the process of visualization undergoes a similar process to all forms of research and discourse in their selection, inclusion/exclusion, editing, emphasis and analysis.

I argue that the rigorous use of visualization will mirror other broader “media literacy” efforts by considering the nature, perspective and context of the visual devices and the position and goals of those who offer up the evidence. Like other discourse on theory and methodology within geography, a review of vision, visuality and visualization will reap benefits owing to the long standing visual tradition in the discipline and their broad use in the classroom, at conferences and in academic journals. In short, this proposition concludes that visualization is both a powerful mode of argument and a form of creative performance in the discipline of geography that merits further investigation (Ryan 2003).

Who’s Afraid of Visual Culture?

Years ago, I remember people saying, “Time magazine is for people who can’t think – Life magazine is for people who can’t read.” Since the former relies on a great variety of maps, colorful charts and diagrams and while both publications rely heavily on the use of powerful photographs, the idea indicates, in part, what I believe is a long standing and broad preference against visual knowledge as suspect, less serious and less important than other forms of discourse. Accordingly, now, many years into my graduate training, it comes as no surprise to me that the geographical journal Antipode featured a series of articles in 2003 that discussed the debate surrounding geographers and “the visual” versus “the textual” in regards to the construction and dissemination of geographical knowledge.

My first introduction to this topic within the discipline was while I was traveling around visiting geography programs during 1998 and 1999[2]. On two memorable occasions, during otherwise generally positive exchanges, I asked for some direction in drafting my “personal statement” for my application; one academic replied sternly, “well, whatever you do, don’t start out with, “I’ve always loved maps…’” while the other earnestly cautioned against mentioning any interest in the National Geographic Magazine (which also makes extensive use across the visualization spectrum: maps, charts, diagrams and photos etc). While I do not consider either of these to be bad suggestions per se (and today they strike me as humorous) the disparaging way they were presented at the time left me with a clear notion that these examples represented a dreaded imagery of geography to at least some of the people in the discipline. As I entered academic geography, it was clear that some geographers privileged textual arguments over, perhaps even to the exclusion of, visual arguments. Given my interest in the use of a variety of methods and visual media, I found it advisable to choose a program where dialogue between these approaches was encouraged.

I did not escape the issue, because later, during my first semester here at the University I also recall hearing comments about mapping not being a “serious” thing to spend time on; while someone else felt that photos taken during travel could be nothing more than a passing curiosity. In a similar vein, in the March 2004 AAG Newsletter, Alexander Murphy, in his President’s column titled, “Bridging Our Differences,” he relates how he finds it “depressing…[though apparently not usual to]…hear someone bragging about not using a map (as if anyone who did use one must be simple minded.)” In contrast, textual arguments and bar graphs seem to carry more inherent credibility in the discipline, as if rhetorical arguments or statistical data could never be misleading, misread or misrepresented.

Interestingly, and in contrast to these aversions and marginalizing comments regarding some visuals, a recent article in Antipode expresses the fear that visuals and their presentation could be too powerful and may overshadow other discourse (Rose 2003). This article, critical of the “slide lecture,” touched off a series of follow up articles in the journal which I will use to frame this paper. While some people do criticize and de-value the visual for different reasons, others find in it precision, synthesis and effective persuasion and some audiences seem to prefer them over what could be termed the “talking head” type lecture. I will argue that visualization provides the “bridging” of the gap between the visual and the textual within the discipline geography.

How, Exactly, is Geography “Visual”?

Gillian Rose asked this question to open her discussion in Antipode beginning with the declaration that, “We just don’t know how, exactly, geography is a visual discipline.” In Anthropology, she observes, scholars have considered the visual “both as an object of study and as a means of interpreting and disseminating knowledges about culture”; but, within geography she finds no parallel work. Reviewing various recent geographical work, she concludes that “’the visual’ hasn’t been analysed in any sustained way in…geography as an academic discipline”. In particular, Rose is interested in the “questions of power and performance” in thinking about geography’s visualities and also “questions of space.” To illustrate her point, she goes on to deconstruct the use of visuals in the classroom and at professional conference sessions in terms of image, audience and space. She fears that the standard use of projected images in darkened rooms creates a hegemonic relationship where the “truth of the slide, the vision of the projector and the refusal by the geographer to problematise either, collaborate to position the geographer and their vision as authoritative”.

Her analysis concludes that “critical geographers need to explore the visualites of the discipline more carefully” and by her example suggests that we need to consider the effects of the “performance of geographic knowledge.” She further urges that a “sensitive exploration of the discipline’s visualities would not be concerned only with the visual.” Instead, she calls for “careful, empirical research that explores the dynamics of image, audience, and space in ways that remain alert to the power relations” they hold (Rose 2003, p212-221).

In response, in Felix Driver’s article, “On geography as a visual discipline” he outlines a long standing fear of visuals in geography. He cites the 19th century use of lantern lamps (an early method of projecting maps, diagrams and photos) which were disparaged at the time “as vehicles for political agitation, missionary propaganda or public entertainment”. Further, he highlights that the use of “lantern slides [was associated] with the vulgarization of expertise and the substitution of sensation for science” and a more modern version of the lantern, the slide projector, as a “machine for retailing travelers tales to a passive audience” (Driver 2003, p227-230). (In this context, one could only suppose how badly the contemporary power point technology might be seen to hurt serious discourse; a point we will return to later.)

However, this is by no means the only view of the use of visuals or the lantern and its modern derivations. David Matless’ response to Rose in his article, “Gestures around the visual,” cites a 1902 article by Herbertson, in the Scottish Geographical Magazine, “The equipment of the geography department” that says “there must be a lantern and if possible a double lantern.” This, among other necessities of the classroom would facilitate in the training in the “powers of observation, description, comparison, and classification…[and in] developing the imagination and widening of the students’ sympathies (as quoted by Matless). In this way and by using careful contextualization, Matless suggests that geography might be considered as a “discipline working with the comparative power of vision…[and that]…geography might emerge as purveyor of the comparative spectacle rather than monocular objectification” (Matless 2003, p222-226). In a similar way, I argue that geographers can choose a middle ground where both visual and textual arguments are valued; indeed, the most powerful use may come from their collaborative use.

However, returning to Driver, this must be done carefully, because he argues that there has been a “failure really to investigate the depths and effects of geography’s enchantment with the ‘visual’ as symbolized by the ‘magic lantern’”. He highlights the need to “distinguish between different sorts of authority and different sorts of lectures” when considering the use of visuals. He concludes that “there is a need to devote closer attention to the visual, less as a foil for doing something else…than as a subject of inquiry in its own right.” This investigation, mirroring Rose, he says requires “a different way of thinking about representation itself – not as something to be counterposed to something else called “practice” or “performance”, but as an effect through practices and performances.” In this way, visualization acts as a dialogue between representation and practice that can emerge as an effective mode of argument and performance.

Mike Crang also weighs in with his article in Antipode, “The hair in the gate: visuality and geographic knowledge,” by urging the importance to “think through how photographs are put to work in particular places in particular ways by geographers.” He stresses the ubiquity of the use of photography in geography: “[I] am staggered when slides are not part of other disciplinary cultures.” And, he stresses the usefulness of photographs as evidence and in making arguments, he says, “they are the proverbial thousand words in terms of immediacy and grasp, in terms of taking students traveling and making them connect with places and people remote from them in space and time”. At the same time, he calls for more creative uses, acknowledging that photographs are “much more rarely used to render strange what is already very familiar to the students.” He argues that rather than being under interpreted, pictures are often “offered instead of interpretation.” And the source of the photograph is also important, he cautions that showing a “holiday snap” (a photo taken during one’s travels) can cause a “loss of authority;” however, the use of a seemingly more credible source, such as a diagram, has a better “chance [for the] students to think it is ‘proper’ geography”. Furthermore, he claims that trying to verbalize a complex argument can leave the students thinking, “you’ve gone off on one there, mate” but instead, if one puts up “a diagram…the theory [becomes] more solid” and evokes more authority and may be more readily accepted. Crang concludes by responding to Rose’s assertion regarding the darkened room and the focus on the bright light of the visuals in a “slide” lecture and her concern about the overly powerful position they might assume. Instead, he argues that the authority constructed in the lecture is always shifting and fragile. As the focus shifts from the speaker to the images, he says, “authority…[is]…produced alongside anxiety over its loss” (Crang 2003, p238-243). This leaves us to ponder what evidence is privileged, whose authority is championed, and why; these are crucial questions in understanding and employing visualization in geography.

In response to Rose’s argument, James Ryan, in his article in Antipode, “Who’s afraid of visual culture?,” takes issue with her interpretation of the slide lecture and also argues for a geographic engagement with the creative in a search for “new research methodologies and representational strategies”. Ryan states, “Rose’s reading of the slide lecture…seems to me to be symptomatic of an iconoclastic tendency in geography to conceive of images as suspect ‘illusions’ that can only be understand with the “appropriate theoretical tools.” Instead, Ryan argues that “concerns about…superficiality [and] fears” surrounding the “seductive power” of images has always been a part of geography’s visual culture as much as the very “reliance on the visual evidence that Rose wishes to problematise.” In others words, Ryan urges what we are facing is not new and that “geographers need to think more deeply and imaginatively about the methods they employ in both teaching and research”. Ryan reminds Rose (and us) that “slides” are not just photographs, so this endeavor will certainly include the expanded interrogation of all visual devices.

Where Rose’s intervention has engaged the sphere of power and space, Ryan suggests another frontier, that of expanding the dialogue between geographers, visual artists and curators to open up “new interpretative possibilities…[for the discipline] by actively performing and recreating geography’s visual cultures.” He cites a recent artist-geographer collaboration in London, a research project titled “Visualising Geography,” that was done at Royal Holloway Geography Department that “develops longstanding connections between geography and the graphic arts.” Some of their work and findings culminated in a visual exhibition titled “Landing.” With its funding from an Arts and Humanities Research Board Innovation Award, both Ryan’s claims of the potential of such collaborative engagement and its creative and innovative nature are strengthened. Another such project in this “arts-science collaborations,” is “Makrolab” a mobile laboratory designed by an artist for use in exploring the “role of technology in the experience of the sublime in 18th and 21st centuries”. The project will result in a film on the topic. Ryan argues, that “such projects [bringing geographers and visual artists together] produce new understandings of visual art as a form of conceptual and practical enquiry and academic geographical research as creative practice.” If we consider geography as a dialogue between the arts and humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, Ryan says, geography is well positioned to “take seriously the potential of new expressive media, particularly those based on digital and computer technology” such as Microsoft Power Point. With this technology, we can integrate and synthesize a great variety of information, both visual and textual, that can be employed in lecture, discussion and journals.

Ryan continues, “the potential for geographers to reconsider their own image-making [however] does not necessarily involve…new technology” – the photo essay has been used effectively since the 1930’s but is “vastly underutilized and underappreciated within geography publishing.” He cites a recent example, Stuart Franklin’s, The Time of Trees (1999), that “combines photographs and texts to produce a photographic essay that gives a striking evocation of the symbolic and material power of the natural landscape (Figure 1). Such examples lead Ryan to conclude that “visual images [can be used] not simply as illustrations or as a foil for textual theory but as a mode of argument and creative performance” (Ryan 2003, p232-237).

Figure 1. Nuclear, chemical and biological warfare exercise in Devon, UK (Franklin 1984). Such photos, as a part of a larger presentation, can serve to challenge notions of the relationship between humans and the environment.

On Photography

Whereas the visualization spectrum may have suffered marginalization, photography may have suffered the most; for this reason, the effective use of photography, in particular, may require the most effort but may also provide the most dramatic horizons to the discipline of geography. As such, I believe that photography merits extra discussion and consideration. I argue that the appearance of the daguerreotype (the first modern photographic system) fundamentally changed the way people see and experience the world. Writing in the New York Review of Books, writer Susan Sontag observes, “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own” (Sontag 1974). The power of photographs is such that it rivals and perhaps surpasses the power of reality itself. Rather than avoid this powerful medium we would do well to engage it directly in order to better understand its power and perhaps harness it for our purposes. Sontag’s foundational work, On Photography is widely referenced in the literature. Her observations are pertinent to geographers,

To collect photographs is to collect the world…in teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads -- as an anthology of images…Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what's in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph -- any photograph -- seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality. (Sontag 1977, p3-5)

Where the series of articles in Antipode serves to show geography’s ongoing debate over use of the textual versus the visual, it also highlights the need for the discipline to look beyond academic geography in exploring the use of visuals and visualization.

Visualization as a Mode of Argument

The anthology, Photography’s Other Histories explores photography as a “globally disseminated and locally appropriated medium” suggesting a wide range of practices. (Pinney 2003, p1). I will expand on Michael Aird’s chapter, “Growing up with Aborigines,” to illustrate five examples of how visualization can be used as a mode of argument. In the first example, when looking at Aborigine people in Australia in the 1920’s and 1930’s, some researchers found their physical characteristics to be so in contrast to other people and so archaic looking that “they thought [the Aborigines were] the last of a dying race.” In this way, they were imagined as subhuman based on this visual evidence.

Figure 2. This written description was used to document the Aborigine man shown Figure 4. (Aird 2003)

Top to Bottom: Figure 3. Measuring the skull of an Aborigine in the 1930’s. (Aird 2003) Figure 4. This photo was unidentified in a museum collection in Australia and was taken in the 1930's. During the 1990's, the man was recognized as a relative by a family member and identified as Andrew Ball. (Aird 2003) Figure 5. The depiction of a Neanderthal from 1928 published in the Science News Letter. Eugenics advocates might find a resemblance to Figure 4. (Science News 1928)

So, secondly, some researchers set about to document this “eugenics” view. The systematic approach they used was description of physical characteristics (Figure 2), measurement of the body (Figure 3) and photography (Figure 4). In particular, there was an effort to document and demonstrate that the shape of the Aborigine skull was different, hence the “side view” shown in Figure 4 and the notation on the “vertical” nature of the skull in (a) in Figure 2. This “side view,” the “subjects” dour expression and the accompanying notes work together to suggest the less than human appearance of the Aborigine on which the theory was based. The effect of these arguments taken together was powerful.

Thirdly, to further this line of argument, one can look to scientific journals of the time (Figure 5) that show artist renderings of the pre-human Neanderthal, whose remains had recently been discovered, depicting them as a kind of man-beast. Those so inclined apparently could easily see a resemblance between Figures 4 and 5. These types of evidence were widely compared and circulated, held in museum collections and were used to support the theory of inferior and superior “races” of peoples. More recently, however, using genetic evidence (which is also visual evidence) these earlier conclusions have been discredited and not surprisingly, these types of photos and arguments have come to be regarded as degrading and have been scorned.

In my fourth example, we see that there was other photographic evidence from the same time period that was, at best merely uncirculated or unavailable, and at worst was purposely ignored, that could have challenged the “eugenics” findings. During the same time period, some Aborigine people were also taking their own pictures of themselves which reveal them in a very different way (Figure 6). These photos, in contrast to the researcher’s photos, were held in personal family collections so they were not widely distributed (and in any case) were apparently not used at that time as the powerful counter argument that they would have been. Aborigine family albums of the time show them as quite similar to other people – middle class even – socializing, enjoying recreation and family time and dressed up for festive occasions. In this way, they can be seen as human rather than subhuman.

Figure 6. An Aborigine family photo, taken in 1925. (Aird 2003)

Perhaps surprisingly, in the fifth and final example of the powerful (and often personal) nature of visualization, some of these “scientific” photos, meant to show the inferior nature of the aboriginal “race” and now often scorned, have also more recently become a treasured reconnection to the past by descendants of the “subject” who is able to “see past” the surface depiction and appreciate it by recapturing a lost visual record of a forefather (Aird 2003, p23-39).

Thus visualization as a mode of argument involves the evaluation of visual evidence and like other forms of discourse requires the careful collection, selection, comparison, contextualization and interrogation of evidence, both visual and non visual, while recognizing that personal and disparate readings of evidence are possible and that these readings may change over time. A picture can be worth the proverbial “thousand words,” but as an effective mode of argument, visualization may also require the use of the textual and the visual in a collaborative way.

Conclusion: Towards a Theory of Visualization

Where Rose has critiqued the dynamics between image, audience and space, with the presenter in the center, Ryan has proposed that the center of these forces is constantly shifting and manipulated, while Gregory envisions visualization as a central point within the forces of power, knowledge and spatiality (Rose 2003, Ryan 2003, Gregory 1994).

Figure 7, “Visualization and the discipline of geography,” illustrates my contribution to the discussion on the dynamics between the various forces with which we are working. Mirroring Gregory, I place visualization at the intersection between our stimuli and discourses of place, mental and physical images and human agency. These forces are in a constant state of interaction; I argue that thought and expression, manifested by sensual and technological engagement, result in creative performances and arguments of geographical knowledge. In formulating and transmitting arguments, creative performances narrate and interrogate these discourses. As we continually construct, exchange and revise our ideas, visualization is a crucial component to the discipline of geography.

Figure 7. Visualization and the discipline of geography.

George F Roberson

University of Massachusetts – Amherst

Spring 2004


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[1] Derek Gregory, in Geographical Imaginations (1994) emphasizes these points by discussions including “Geography and the Cartographic Anxiety” (p70-205) and the “problematic of visualization” (p15). Gregory argues that “visualization occupies a central place” in a “specifically modern constellation of power, knowledge and spatiality” (p5). This proposition, following Gregory’s (and others) lead, uses the term “visualization” to refer to a broad spectrum of constructions, visual performances, and physical and mental imagery. However, this is in contrast to the definition proposed by R. Johnston, in The Dictionary of Human Geography (2000), which limits the use of the term to those visuals constructed based only on quantitative data. I propose that such visualizations are, rather, a subset that I would refer to as visual simulations, animations or other diagrams.

[2] I visited more than a dozen geography programs in seven countries in North America, Europe and the Middle East.

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