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Seeing Things: literature and the visual

Peter Vernon

Showing the Places you Tell: Visual Evidence in Travel Writing1

Nancy Pedri

Texte intégral

I. Evidential Truth

  • 1 I would like to thank the British Council of Canada for generously supporting research for this ar (...)

1Travel writing is a literary genre that purports to present a truthful account of a particular journey and place. Regulated by a selfdeclared obligation to be factual, travel writing is marked with the recognition and the responsibility of truth. It is characterised by factual truth-claims - that is, text-intrinsic declarations by the author claiming to relate a historical truth through a faithful recording or reporting on a journey and a foreign land. The writer’s declared decision to stay within the limits of truth, as it can be known, is combined with the implementation of various discursive styles and techniques that confirm some type of link to the actual world. The author’s commitment to truth is thus coupled with the commitment to provide evidence for the truth.

  • 2 On the use of evidence in fiction and its relation to truth, see Foley, 42-84, Furst, 93-94, Sauer (...)

2A prominent figuring of documentary evidence that serves to establish a direct relation of correspondence to historical reality clearly marks In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin and Tibetan Foothold by Dervla Murphy. Both travel writers present their readers with an introductory map of the territory explored throughout the narrative; both include photographic images taken on their trip in a blocked off, primarily visual section in the middle of the book; and both reinforce their accounts with direct quotes from external sources as well as with conventional reference tools such as an index, a bibliography, or a table of contents. These evidential details, used by Chatwin and Murphy, not only implicate readers in the recounted experience, but also appeal to their belief in the veracity of facts. They entice participation and corroborate the narrative’s truth-claims by investing it with the lure and reliability of empirical validation.2

3The truthfulness of factual evidence, however, is also dependent upon the author’s vision that guides its interpretation. Indeed, once the author’s presence as reflecting intermediary is admitted, the notion of factual evidence as absolutely true, as a faithful representation of an independently existent actuality, can no longer be admitted (Furst, 4).

4I propose to analyse the authorial framing of evidence and its influence on the reader’s epistemological evaluation of evidence through a comparative reading of the use of visual evidence in Tibetan Foothold and In Patagonia. My focus on visual evidence as opposed to the verbal traces of reality found in these travel narratives is prompted by the common assumption that visual documents are neutral or more objectively sound than their verbal counterparts. In contradistinction, I suggest that the plainness, the matter-of-factness of visual evidence actually makes it possible to fully explore and experience how any observation or description of it cannot avoid being inflected by the interpreter’s subjectivity. The differing modes Murphy and Chatwin adopt to discern, understand, read, and thus re-shape similar visual documents illuminate the epistemological flexibility of common models of accuracy.

II. Historical Accuracy

5Murphy begins Tibetan Foothold with a gesture of historical clarification: “As soon as one attempts to clarify the history of Tibet’s relations with China,” she writes in the forward, “one is up against problems that refuse to be resolved in Western political terms” (1). Adopting what she believes is a ‘non-western’ attitude in her chronological exposition of Tibet’s struggles for independence, an attitude that privileges common sense over legalistic arguments, the author speaks with authority to indicate how the “blatant misrepresentation of the facts” (6), the misunderstanding of Tibetan religion and customs, as well as Tibet’s own “deliberate isolationism” (7) made it “convenient for the free world to ignore the Chinese threat” (7). From the onset, readers are told that official history is not accurate: that it did not and does not truthfully reflect the facts. Legislation, statistics, and other western models of historical accuracy misrepresent the ‘real’ Tibetan issues that, according to Murphy, have to do with the personal, the spiritual, and the religious. These metaphysical principles elude Western models of documentary evidence that privilege empirically demonstrable truths.

6Accordingly, Murphy suggests that history (contemporary and past) can be known and accurately recorded through an attentive, sensible, and informed eye that engages in what Ε. H. Carr has described as an “imaginative understanding for the minds of the people with whom [the historian] is dealing, for the thought behind their acts” (24). In Tibetan Foothold, Murphy pretends to add and contrapose this imaginative dimension to the official historical accounts of Tibetan refugee camps. The narrator adopts the role of the knowledgeable and perceptive historian who critiques ‘erroneous’ understandings, correcting them with her learned, first-hand insights into Tibet’s physical, social, cultural, and psychological realities. Indeed, she rarely misses an occasion to state how hers is a privileged position: “I’ve now seen for myself a little of the road-camp dangers and discomforts, from the Tibets’ point of view” (155).

7Chatwin is not so comfortable with the notion of a privileged access to historical understanding. In Patagonia, historical details about Patagonia, its people, and its legends are often tinged with vivid imagination that does not aim to correct official histories, but rather hints at the inevitable fictionalising of experience. The narrator’s attentive scrutiny of historical details about the life of two of his childhood heroes-his grandmother’s cousin Charley Milward the Sailor and legendary out-law Butch Cassidy-reveals historical accuracy to be complex, knotted, doubled, and twisted because caught up in a baffling network of nonfictional and fictional elements.

8In collecting and presenting all sorts of ‘histories’ about both figures, the narrator indiscriminately mixes historical and legendary, factual and fictional evidence, strongly suggesting that they both have claims on truth. Throughout In Patagonia, official and unofficial histories seamlessly blend to reconstruct historical truth: the names in telephone books tell “a story of exile, disillusion and anxiety behind lace curtains” (4), the disparate (and often contradictory) memories of oral stories prove to add valuable insight to historical accounts, and unrecorded superstitions are either signalled out to indicate a sense of deep historical loss (136) or scrutinised to discern their verity (72). This gesture of inclusion-where multiple versions of the same history are considered-discloses an inherent defiance of the limits separating historical certainty and fictional certainty, positive fact and imaginative invention, life and art. As one reviewer notes, In Patagonia exhibits “Chatwin’s sublime disregard for the categories of fiction and non-fiction” (Enzensberger, 657).

III. Cartographie Evidence

9Even maps, which “are normally designed to impart information about the invariant features of an area” (Gombrich, 183), are tainted with the mythical constructions of imaginative speculation. Describing the coast of Tierra del Fuego, the narrator of In Patagonia notes that “The Strait of Magellan is another case of Nature imitating Art. A Nuremberg cartographer, Martin Beheim, drew the South-West passage for Magellan to discover” (111). It is argued that the map’s accuracy was not based on empirical observation, for the Strait was charted before being physically explored, but rather on the way people understood the nature of the world. Centuries later, similar “entirely reasonable” premises of the day directed cartographers who “drew Tierra del Fuego as the northern cape of the Antichthon and filled it with suitable monstrosities: gorgons, mermaids and the Roc, that outsize condor which carried elephants” (111). The development of Tierra del Fuego maps, as outlined by the narrator, shows maps, mapping, and cartographic accuracy to have less to do with the faithful transcription of place than with the way place is imagined. What is ultimately suggested by the variety of ways in which Tierra del Fuego is cartographically constructed is that ‘truthful’ representations of place exceed the visual.

10That authorial subjectivity is inevitably inscribed in the map’s lines, shapes, and language is reinforced by the map of Patagonia included at the beginning of In Patagonia (Figure 1).

Figure I: Map of Patagonia

  • 3 The map of Ceylon that Michael Ondaatje includes at the beginning of Running in the Family also pl (...)

11The use of European languages to designate ‘natural’ land formations - such as the Spanish Rio, Lago, Golfo and the English Island, Cape, Channel - instead of their original Indian equivalents exposes cartographic truth as too ephemeral to be charted definitely. The intermingling of two languages shows geographical evidence as infinitely subject to representational models that shape the land and make it knowable. The map itself, as a palimpsest of erasures and re-inscriptions, establishes cartographic evidence as partial and changing, as well as exclusionary insofar as it fails to take into account the histories against which it acts.3

12Contempt for Indian models of understanding is also linked to questions of language throughout the narrative. Explaining how Thomas Bridges mastered “the language Darwin sneered at,” the narrator specifies that “[t] o [Bridges’] surprise, he uncovered a complexity of construction and a vocabulary no one had suspected in a ‘primitive’ people” (135). Upon this realisation and with the hope to convert the primitives to Christianity (i.e., to change their belief system), Bridges compiled a dictionary that “survived the Indians to become their monument” (135). What is most interesting is that the maker of the dictionary, like the maker of maps, engaged in a destructive act of re-naming:

Thomas Bridges coined the word ‘Yaghan’ after a place called Yagha: the Indians called themselves Yámana. Used as a verb yámana means ‘to live, breathe, be happy, recover from sickness or be sane’. As a noun it means ‘people’ as opposed to animals. A hand with the suffix-yámana was a human hand, a hand offered in friendship, as opposed to a death-dealing claw. (138)

  • 4 For a similar discussion of the name's multiple properties of representation in relation to portra (...)

13The long list of metaphorical associations linked to yámana, the word used by Indians to refer to themselves, makes specific reference to how names not only identify individuals, but also have multiple properties of representation4. Yámana designates more than an Indian community; its meaning includes aspects of the spiritual, emotional, physical, and communal properties valued by the Indians. To re-name, Chatwin’s narrator suggests, is to distort the original or, taken to an extreme, to efface it all together. Paradoxically, the dictionary as monument of the Indian people is as distorted by its maker’s ideology as are the cartographic portrayals of Tierra del Fuego. Neither furnishes conclusive evidence of what they purport to relate.

14A selective framing of place is also evident in Murphy’s Tibetan Foothold, where the narrator is principally concerned with instructing the reader in the geography (physical and mental) of Tibetan camp-life in India. Although the Index meticulously references all of the villages, towns, valleys, passes, and rivers mentioned throughout the narrative, the map that is included in its introductory pages does not. Indeed, large camp settlements such as Shoja near Luhri are omitted, whereas the smaller settlements of Rahola and Shat are easily located on the map (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Detailed map west Pakistan

  • 5 This selective process parallels the narrator's privileging of one name over another. Never is it (...)
  • 6 For an analysis of the significance of blank spaces in world maps and how they reflect a Eurocentr (...)

15Murphy’s map does not abide by Western mapping criteria where population and geographical size secure inclusion in ‘official’ maps. Instead, what is included in this map depends mostly on the narrator’s appreciation of either the natural landscape (usually beautifully suggestive) or the camp situation (usually the most squalid camps). Places that conform to these subjective standards are privileged over those that do not.5 The sign of the maker’s interpretative hand can be seen in the un-named places, in the map’s blank spaces, in the absences that are not filled in by naming and mapping.6

16Although maps are tools that structure, construct, and invent place according to the representational models adopted by a particular mapmaker, a presumption of veracity makes them evidentially sound. Paradoxically, maps impart trustworthy knowledge about the physical world through an odd mixture of empirical spaces and private interpretations of those spaces. In general terms, maps are what Martine Joly defines as indexical scientific images-that is, highly coded images that are culturally accepted as a truthful exposé of an actual geographical area (65). Readers are intent on the veridical perception of what is represented because maps are images that are by convention (and habit) presented and approached as corresponding to an empirical place. It is precisely the map’s adherence to culturally established symbols and codes that renders it legible and makes it a reliable epistemological tool.

17The map, which Gombrich refers to as a “frozen mirror image” (173), also indicates a series of spatial relations by way of precise symbols that are often explained by a key or legend. Readers easily translate the symbols of space and distance into the spaces and distances of actual places, making of the map an accurate rendition of a real place. What is most interesting, however, is how flexible definitions of accuracy can be. The hand-sketched map of the Lower Nursery of Dharamsala included within the pages of Tibetan Foothold corroborates the narrator’s verbal description of geographical relations and serves as an aid to understanding the spatial particularities (layout, distance, and size) of the camp (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Sketch map of lower nursery, Dharamsala

18The fact that the maker of this map adopted two different methods to show distance-one is to write out the distance (8 miles, 2 miles, 1 mile and ¼ mile) and the other is to draw a narrow, winding road-and that both methods are far from ‘accurate’ disturbs few, if any, readers. Do readers excuse the fact that a winding path does not give a clear sense of distance because this is obviously an ‘unofficial’ map sketched by the hand of an amateur cartographer? This is quite possible, but then what is to be made of the fact that the ‘official’ map in Chatwin’s narrative does not provide a scale for discerning distance seeing that the average map-reader would not know that 1 geographical degree is the equivalent of 69.047 miles (avg) or 111.123 km (avg)? In both the ‘unofficial’ and ‘official’ map, a clear, incontestable understanding of distance or spatial relation cannot be reached.

19These epistemological shortcomings, however, do not stop most readers from flipping back to the map once a place is named or described by either narrator. It can be argued that the urge to identify the exact geographical place realises the connection between the map and the general knowledge that maps always refer to actual places. Cartographic accuracy would therefore depend on this dual motion: the mapmaker’s desire to chart a real place and the readers’ willingness to approach maps as accurate representations of a real place. However, as the cartographic models in both In Patagonia and Tibetan Foothold suggest, cartographic accuracy varies greatly according to the changing views and desires of both the mapmaker and the reader. Both travel narratives expose cartographic accuracy as assuming a significant degree of difference between the map and the actual place, the representation and the real world.

IV. Photographic Evidence

  • 7 For an overview of theorists who approach the photograph as an exact imitation of reality, see Dub (...)

20The photographic image, perhaps more than any other form of visual evidence, is most often considered to be a faithful copy of reality. Ever since its origins, the photograph has been promoted as a neutral tool of exact reproduction of the real. Taine Hippolyte states that the photograph is “une imitation parfaite de l’objet qu’elle doit reproduire” (25), Phillipe Dubois claims that it is “une trace singulière attestant de l’existence de son objet” (93). Roland Barthes defines the photographic image as “un analogon parfait du reel” (1961, 128), John Berger as a “record of things seen” (179), and Max Kozloff writes that “a photograph replenishes data that confirm appearances” (240)7 And yet theorists of photography, imagery, and semiotics have repeatedly demonstrated that the photographic image as an aesthetic and constructed object. Even most of the theorists just cited have, at one point or another, systematically argued that the photographic image is a coded representation that creates an illusory impression of reality. However, despite the forceful attacks on the referential exactitude of the photographic image (and, at times, because of them), its evidential status is rarely negated. The photograph’s power of authentication, to paraphrase Barthes, supersedes its power of representation (1980, 138). In Susan Sontag’s words, it is the “presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness” (6).

Both Chatwin and Murphy include numerous photographs in their narratives. Whereas Chatwin’s photographic selection focuses on buildings, landscapes, and objects, Murphy’s is primarily of people. These portrait photographs, with their air of sentimental keepsakes of an individual, valued and read by the narrator in the most intimate terms, place the subject in the centre of discourse. Just like the names that are deemed important enough to be included in the introductory map, the portraits Murphy reproduces not only fix identity, but also make it knowable.

  • 8 The one exception is the image of a toddler entitled "Fingers are useful for scraping out mugs" (n (...)

21Implicit in the portraits included in Tibetan Foothold is the notion of an identifiable historical person. Murphy’s individual and group portraits are of specific people who are named by the accompanying caption (Figure 4 and Figure 5).8

Figure 4: Thondup Tsing with Bran

Figure 5: Kesang, Juliet, the author and Sister Sawnay

22The names are familiar to readers who easily recognise them as designating people referred to in the narrative and who thus approach each photographic portrait as a “visible identity sign by which someone can be known, possibly for ever” (Brilliant, 14). The naming of those portrayed grounds the portrait’s epistemological evaluation in the certainty of first-hand knowledge, a certainty that is shared by Murphy and her readers.

23By securing a visual link to what is told, the portrait photographs engage readers in Murphy’s commitment to testify to the ‘real’ Tibetan situation. However, the matter-of-factness of this visual evidence that lays claim to documentary objectivity risks reinstating a single, unified version of a historical reality. Murphy’s photographic portraits name and fix identity, take possession of it and cause it to exist; in short, they confine it to the author’s vision of things. Privileging the imitative quality of the photographic portrait over its creative capacity, the author adopts the same model of authoritative fashioning against which she claims to write. Ultimately, the complexity, ambiguity, and dynamism of the individuals, their personal, spiritual, and religious qualities Murphy intended to capture, are sacrificed to the empirical certainty of the photographic portrait.

24Chatwin includes only one photographic portrait in his narrative (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Welsh Farmer, Chubut

25It is taken in the style of Walker Evans - an American photographer who documented the everyday existence of ordinary people-and is generically entitled “Welsh Farmer, Chubut”. The lack of an identifying label or, more precisely, the inclusion of a generic one identifies this photograph as a portrait type-that is, a portrait liberated from the restrictive epistemological presumptions of an exact, individual referential content. Unlike the photographic portraits included in Tibetan Foothold, Chatwin’s portrait does not testify to the existence of a static, stable, or permanent individual. As a portrait type, the identity of the portrayed subject exists somewhere between what is represented visually and what is conceived through the imaginative workings of each reader. Tellingly, the accuracy of Chatwin’s photographic portrait, where identity is fluid, open, and forever changing, is situated within this dynamic interchange between visual evidence and reader.

26The determining role of imaginative speculation in discerning the accuracy of visual evidence is also apparent in the photographic images of place Chatwin includes in In Patagonia. The photographs of the Moreno Glacier, for instance, are highly suggestive images that resemble closely those taken by photographer Minor White, who wanted to show that photographic meaning is dynamic or fluid like that of a metaphor or symbol (Figure 7).

Figure 7: The Moreno Glacier

27Chatwin’s photographs depict deserted, open, vast spaces and long, virtually never ending roads that disappear into an empty space, qualities that encourage multiple interpretations. The interpretative demands they make on readers lead to the realisation that a definite, exact, correct picture of historical reality can never be attained. Like the narrator who tries to untangle the truth from a multitude of disparate histories only to come to the conclusion that “history aspires to the symmetry of myth" (95), the readers of this visual evidence futilely struggle to separate reality from imagination, the objective from the subjective, the evident from the construed.

28Far from the direct, documentary style that usually characterises the visual evidence included in most travel narratives, the photographs in In Patagonia exhibit a mythical quality that reflects the narrator’s (and the author’s) belief in the fictitious dimension of reality. They are framed to confront most directly the paradoxical unity of factual event and fictional reconstruction that informs the truthfulness of all representations and shapes their power to impart accurate meaning. Accuracy, the narrator suggests and the visual evidence confirms, converges with fact only when the truth of historical reality merges with the truth of fiction.


Works cited

Ashcroft, Bill, 2001. Post-Colonial Transformation. London: Routledge.

Barthes, Roland, 1980. La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie. Paris: Seuil.

—, 1961. “Le Message photographique.” Communications 1: 127-138.

Berger, John, 1972. “Understanding a Photograph.” Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things. Ed. Nikos Stangos. Middlesex: Penguin. 178-182.

Brilliant, Richard, 1991. Portraiture. London: Reaktion.

Carr, Ε. H., 1961. What is History? Ed. R. W. Davies. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 1990.

Chatwin, Bruce, [1979] 1982. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin.

Dubois, Philippe, 1990. L’Acte photographique et autres essais. Paris: Nathan.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus, 1978, June 16. "Much Left Unsaid." The Times Literary Supplement: 657.

Foley, Barbara, 1986. Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

Furst, Lilian R, 1995. All is True: The Claims and Strategies of Realist Fiction. Durham: Duke

Gombrich, Ε. H., [1974] 1982. “Mirror and Map: Theories of Pictorial Representation.” The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Oxford: Phaidon, 172-214.

Hippolyte, Taine, 1921. Philosophie de l’art. Tome 1. Paris: Hachette.

Joly, Martine, 1994. L’Image et les signes: Approche sémiologique de l’image fixe. Paris: Nathan.

Kozloff, Max, 1994. Lone Visions/Crowded Frames: Essays on Photography. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P.

Murphy, Dervla, 1966. Tibetan Foothold. London: Flamingo, 2000.

Ondaatje, Michael, 1982. Running in the Family. Toronto: McClelland.

Said, Edward, 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf.

Sauerberg, Lars Ole, 1991. Fact into Fiction: Documentary Realism in the Contemporary Novel. London: Macmillan.

Sontag, Susan, 1990. [1977], On Photography. New York: Doubleday.

Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud, 1976. The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel. Urbana: U of Illinois P.


1 I would like to thank the British Council of Canada for generously supporting research for this article.

2 On the use of evidence in fiction and its relation to truth, see Foley, 42-84, Furst, 93-94, Sauerberg, 54-57, and Zavarzadeh’s book-length study The Mythopeoic Reality.

3 The map of Ceylon that Michael Ondaatje includes at the beginning of Running in the Family also plays with language to reveal the transient, ambiguous nature of cartographic evidence. Whereas Chatwin’s map is a melange of two European languages, Ondaatje's map mixes the official language with the unofficial one to stage what Edward Said calls contrapuntal energies-that is, a "simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts" (51).

4 For a similar discussion of the name's multiple properties of representation in relation to portraiture, see Brillant, 46.

5 This selective process parallels the narrator's privileging of one name over another. Never is it mentioned that Benares, a sacred Hindu pilgrimage site, is also known as Varanasi and Banares.

6 For an analysis of the significance of blank spaces in world maps and how they reflect a Eurocentric view of spatiality, see Ashcroft, 130-132.

7 For an overview of theorists who approach the photograph as an exact imitation of reality, see Dubois, 21-31.

8 The one exception is the image of a toddler entitled "Fingers are useful for scraping out mugs" (n. page).

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure I: Map of Patagonia
Fichier image/jpeg, 293k
Légende Figure 2: Detailed map west Pakistan
Fichier image/jpeg, 211k
Légende Figure 3: Sketch map of lower nursery, Dharamsala
Fichier image/jpeg, 250k
Légende Figure 4: Thondup Tsing with Bran
Fichier image/jpeg, 216k
Légende Figure 5: Kesang, Juliet, the author and Sister Sawnay
Fichier image/jpeg, 154k
Légende Figure 6: Welsh Farmer, Chubut
Fichier image/jpeg, 293k
Légende Figure 7: The Moreno Glacier
Fichier image/jpeg, 244k


Worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam from 2000-05 and is currently teaching at McGill University, Canada. She has published widely on word-image relations in contemporary French, Italian and English Literatures.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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