As history has shown, maps have rarely ― if ever ― been truly objective. Medieval maps, for example, placed Jerusalem at the center of the world; its position highlighted the city’s importance as the spiritual epicenter of life at the time. In the 16th century, a mapmaker created the Mercator Projection, which distorts the size of landmasses to an astonishing degree (for example, it shows Greenland as larger than Africa — when, in fact, Africa is about 14 times the size of Greenland). Even today, the Mercator Projection is often taken as an absolute authority, perpetuating a skewed view of the world.
Once you accept that maps are usually subjective representations of reality, they begin to take on a new form: shaken from the mold of objectivity, narrative cartography expresses experience and emotion in a spatiotemporal way. By telling stories through our personal annotations, we render maps themselves more than scientific tools or geographic references ― they become holders of our memories, witnesses to our movements, records of the paths we take through life. That’s a lesson that my travel experiences have taught me time and time again.
When I was 16, I moved to Troyes, France, to study for five months. It was my first time being truly away from home, and I struggled with homesickness, which was made worse by the language barrier. I felt adrift in my new life, untethered from my familiar places and routines. Until then, I had never really thought about what it means to feel at home somewhere, and I had never actively tried to cultivate a sense of belonging. Desperate to put down roots, and yearning to understand my place in this foreign country, I began drawing maps.
At first, the maps were rudimentary, marking only the geographic and emotional essentials: arterial roads and major landmarks, my school, the bus stop that took me back to my host family’s house. But over time, these scribbles in my journals grew in content and importance, representing the narrative of my time in France. What had begun as empty streets and buildings soon became the loci for memories and milestones: the stoop where French teenagers smoked cigarettes during lunch, my favorite bakery, the street I loved to photograph, the garden where I cried, realizing that spring had come. The maps both documented my experiences and cemented them in physical space.
In years since, I’ve continued my personal cartography, using it to understand the world around me and explore how I relate to it. When I backpacked around Europe after high school, I filled my notebook with sketched maps of foreign cities, as a way to better understand them during the brief time I visited. Later on, when I had to move back home to recover from surgery, I mapped my hometown in Massachusetts in an attempt to fully return to it and reconceive my place there after years away. Even now, personal cartography is a staple during my travels; colorful, half-smudged charts fill the pages of my journals, helping me process my experiences in unfamiliar places.
Looking back at these sketches, I laugh at how inaccurate they can be. Alleyways are drawn the same size as major boulevards, entire neighborhoods get squished to the size of a penny, and where two streets meet in reality, they almost never do in my notebook. Despite these geographic misrepresentations, however, the drawings of these places are exactly as I perceived them: that side street is drawn so wide because I spent more time there than I did on the main drag, and those roads don’t meet up where they should because I got lost while wandering. My experiences skew how I remember the physical space, etching my memory into the drawn-landscape. So, while these maps would never be useful for navigation, they’ve nonetheless led me to deeper understandings of myself, and of who I am as a traveler ― what I’m drawn to, what stays with me, and what inspires me to keep exploring.
Picture your favorite place in the world. Is it home, or is it somewhere you’ve traveled? Do you love it for its scenery, its smells, its soundscape? Regardless of where that location lies, you ascribed it meaning through your experiences and memories, transforming it from a physical space into your favorite place.
In his book “Space and Place,” Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” These maps are an attempt to make manifest that statement, to bridge objective reality with subjective experience ― acting as a guide to a real space while also telling my story.
Throughout my artistic endeavors, I’ve thought a lot about ― and struggled with ― the question of how to represent memory, time, place, and change. Personal cartography is the closest I’ve come to being able to capture and catalog these feelings in relation to the physical world. It has taught me think deeply about the way I move through the world, and about the places I choose to call my own. More than anything, these sketches are a study in homemaking and finding meaning in unfamiliar spaces across the globe. They are both my means of escape and belonging, of exploration and expression. Without them, I simply wouldn’t experience the world the same way.
Want to learn how to map out your corner of the world and explore how spaces become places?
- Begin with general shapes for landmasses. Include major geographical features, such as parks or bodies of water.
- Next, roughly sketch major roads and landmarks. These can be important to the location, or to you personally.
- Fill the place with your stories, memories, and experiences. Label your go-to
coffee shops and bookstores, trace your favorite walks, mark the locations that have particular memories tied to them, and use any empty space on the page to write about why they’re meaningful.
Everyone’s maps will look different, but that’s what makes them personal. Lean into your creativity and let the maps tell your story.
If you’re interested in further documenting your adventures, learn why journaling should be part of your travel routine.