Landscape and meaning

I thought it might be worth adding a little more background to my recent post looking at Oxfam’s current advertising campaign, and its use of ‘epic landscapes’ in a move to shift focus from images of starving people.

My belief is that it is an interesting and quite bold strategy but one not fully thought out.  My unease with this campaign lies in the unqualified use of the word ‘landscape’,  for example in the phrase used in the Oxfam ads:

Let’s make South Sudan famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger.”

Why does this matter? Is this simply the carping of someone with too much time on their hands being pedantic? Well no. There’s a considerable body of research work that has been done on the social and cultural significance of landscape. And its crucial that any campaign that seeks to use images which portray such ‘spaces’ as ‘epic’ or ‘beautiful’ or whatever, consider the implications of the ways they portray them, and the language they use to describe them. And particularly so in the developing world, and specifically in Africa with its contentious colonial past and, many might argue, the overtones of colonialism in its present, as recently alluded to by Tolu Ogunlesi.

Liz Wells in her book ‘Land Matters (Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity)’ eloquently nails the ‘problem’ within the Introduction:

” ‘Land Matters’ is a play on word: taken rhetorically, it means that land is important; taken literally, the phrase references business relating to land. This book is concerned with ways in which photographers engage issues about land, its representation and idealisation. Representation of land as landscape, whether romantic or in more topographic modes, reflects and reinforces contemporary political, social and environmental attitudes. This is seated within and influences cultural identity, which can be defined as a complex and fluid articulation of the subjective and the collective that draws into play a range of factors such as class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, but it is by no means limited to these social formations.

Landscape is a social product; particular landscapes tell us something about cultural histories and attitudes. Landscape results from human intervention to shape or transform natural phenomena, of which we are simultaneously a part. A basic useful definition of landscape thus would be vistas encompassing both nature and the changes that humans have effected on the natural world.”

It should be obvious from this that the term ‘landscape’, once considered from such a perspective, starts to become somewhat troubling when used as a catch-all term for a particular ‘place’.

As Wells goes on to underline:

Space and Place

Discussing Landscape and Power W.J.T. Mitchell argued that landscape is best used not as a noun, but as a verb, ‘to landscape’ (Mitchell, 1994). This acts as a useful reminder that landscape results from human action, whether from direct intervention to make changes on the land (town planning, landscape architecture, gardening….), or from exploring how land might be represented (in writing, art, film, photography, or everyday journalism and casual conversation). To ‘landscape’ is to impose a certain order……

‘Space’ is conceptually complex and etymologically slippery (sometimes apparently contradictory). It may refer to that which is not known and this cannot be precisely categorized (for instance, ‘outer space’). It may reference expanses of land, or of time, with potential – as in ‘space’ for development, ‘space’ to play, ‘space’ to think………

……..The act of naming is the act of taming. In Western culture, describing space as desert, or wilderness, or planet, represents potential comprehensibility and cues scientific and philosophical enquiry. By naming I mean both the terming of space as, for example, wilderness, and the naming of such space, for example, Antarctica. Once named we no longer view somewhere as unknowable – although as yet relatively little may be known. Likewise of course, familiar places are those that have come to seem ‘known’. There is a political dimension: for instance ‘wilderness’ or ‘outer space’ may also be seen as that which has not yet been territorialised economically, geographically or astronomically.”

I will not quote all of this introductory chapter, you’ll have got the gist of it by now, but I’ll finish with what I consider to be the nub of it all:

But landscape pictures, composed in accordance with the rules of perspective, offer a single, central viewing position; this draws upon and contributes to reaffirming the Cartesian – and Catholic – emphasis on unique subjectivity. Spectatorship becomes, in effect, a symbolic exercise of control – of mind over matter – articulated via the pleasures of contemplation……..

In addition, in terms of a politics of representation, imagery offers us ways of comprehending phenomena and experiences; photographic perceptions influence ways of seeing. For this reason what is represented, how it is represented, and who has the power to represent constitute contested terrain.”


The ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ in the last paragraph are at the heart of this. As I noted in my previous post:

Interviewed in the NYT about his book ‘Landscape and Memory’ Simon Schama says:

There is a difference between land, which is earth, and landscape, which signifies a kind of jurisdiction. It always meant the framing of an image,”

And that’s perhaps the problem I have with these Oxfam images, as framed by Oxfam they are beautiful and exotic “landscapes”, but devoid of their inherent and complex human stories they are not “land, which is earth”. The former is about our ‘jurisdiction’ over these places, the latter about roots, physical and cultural, in ‘the soil of our fathers’. And I know which one I, as a donor, would rather support.

But allow me to drag this from the abstract and overly academic (because I am not an academic), to the personal and into the real world where I am more comfortable; and whilst this may not be the best example,  it might suffice here. I’ve been working on an ongoing documentary project on the Isle of Mull, following a couple of families involved in sustainable fishing on the top end of the island. As I worked off and on over a couple of years a gentle story unfolded. It’s a time-worn tale of sons following fathers. The sons fishing for crabs in the Atlantic and their fathers, life-long friends who fished together in the 1960’s from the same pier, into the same seas as their sons, but now semi-retired and farming oysters in a hidden bay near their home.

If you visited this bay at full tide you would have to wander off the ‘main road’ and take a small track down a lane, then cut through a straggle of birch woodland. Following a worn muddy trail which you might assume was made by wandering sheep,  you would eventually emerge on a hillside above a bay, the inlet to a small river, and you would see……..nothing, but an ‘epic landscape’. On this January day, a northerly wind hustles across the land, dark clouds massing over the unrelenting ocean bringing episodes of stinging sleet, and in a moment of sheer Spielbergian beauty a rainbow arcs down, connecting sky to land. This might represent for many people the archetypal ‘highland wilderness’. With the rising tide fully in to the bay, most of the evidence of the labours that occur in this place are completely hidden, concealed beneath the waves.

Lower Loch a' Chummainn near Poll Athach ('Gaelic Big Pool'), Isle of Mull © John MacPherson
Lower Loch a’ Chummhainn near Poll Athach (English: ‘Big Pool’), Isle of Mull © John MacPherson

However if you arrive at low tide, all is revealed, as the receding water uncovers the racks upon which the bagged oysters filter feed; and as an ancient salt-encrusted tractor chugs across the exposed dark gravel you will witness the oyster farmers’ work commence. The families all share the burden and for that window of opportunity between low and high water the beach is alive with activity.

Leaving our mark upon the land, Isle of Mull © John MacPherosn
Leaving our mark upon the land, Isle of Mull © John MacPherosn

Ashore the oysters are sorted,  in the sorting shed, an unassuming tin structure surrounded by fishing paraphernalia. If you were to engage Nick or George, or Andrea, or Kenny or Gordon in conversation you might have another ‘layer of meaning’ about this ‘landscape’ revealed to you. The story of how a recent archaeological dig right behind their shed unearthed shell and ash remnants, shards of flint, evidence of sustainable shellfish gathering in this place going back over 4000 years.

Seen in this context, and with this ‘depth of meaning’, the current labours of the families working in this place take on a different sense of scale, rich in tradition, deeply affecting, and not just economically important but socially and culturally significant too. With the return of the tide, the racks disappear, tyre marks on gravel are erased, the workers depart. The ‘epic landscape’ returns, concealing beneath layers of water, layers of soil, layers of time, layers of culture, the complex story of its various histories. This complexity is what makes ‘landscape’ compelling, beautiful and vital.

Nick works the oyster racks, Isle of Mull © John MacPherson
Nick works the oyster racks, Isle of Mull © John MacPherson


The bottom line for me: it’s the stories of the land that matters, stories of community and their ‘knowing’ a place.  One person’s ‘epic landscape’ may be another’s culturally significant home terrain, brim full of meaning, memory and containing the echo of many previous voices. We should try to hear these voices too if we wish to understand the significance of place, and the way that those stories underpin ‘community’ in a very real sense.

And the work of aid agencies like Oxfam, if they are to truly move away from the outdated models of fundraising, must consider ways to underpin the stories that communities tell about themselves now.  If we must use ‘epic landscapes’ to promote aid, and elicit donations, let these ‘landscapes’ be framed by their significance to the people who live there. We ALL recognise the need for community, storytelling and cultural nourishment, and in every culture land, food, family and story are inextricably intertwined, and I think many potential donors will appreciate that.

But I’ll leave the last word to author Barry Lopez, probably my favourite writer about landscape because of his uncanny ability to make land that is ‘epic’ and ‘spectacular’ deeply personal and meaningful on a human scale:

“We keep each other alive with our stories. We need to share them, as much as we need to share food. We also require for our health the presence of good companions. One of the most extraordinary things about the land is that it knows this—and it compels language from some of us so that as a community we may converse about this or that place, and speak of the need.”  Barry Lopez

  • Another great article John. Thanks. Think I’ll try to get hold of a copy of the Liz Wells book.

    • Thanks Tony. Wells book is brilliant – but be prepared for disappointment as it seems to be out of print – its listed s/h on Amazon for £600 – £1000 which must be an error! But its available in ebook form for £14!

      • John, I have it as an ebook, a bit expensive but definitely worth the cost for anyone looking into this subject.

        • Thanks Will. Are you referring to ‘The Language of Landscape’ by Anne Whiston Spirin ? I didn’t see that as an ebook. I have the Liz Wells though.

  • Ray Wood

    All good food for thought. Feel that the way the landscape is portrayed is very much the classical look through ‘white’ western eyes. Perhaps I’m wrong and they used an African photographer from that country.

    I feel that the photos themselves don’t have the emotional impact that a fund raising organisation perhaps needs. The timing of the Oxfam campaign resonates with the current BBC series on Africa where a friend was complaining today of feeling like he was’nt being told the whole story as the epic shots of wildlife & wilderness just looked too perfect.

    • Thanks for commenting Ray. I’d be interested in the process Oxfam went through to obtain & edit the images chosen. They’re all credited apart from a couple from Corbis. To be honest I thought I was looking at ads for the BBC series, they were so ‘glorious’. Be interesting to see where they take this.

  • Yes John, I’d seen the book price after I’d commented. Doh! I prefer real books to electronic ones so will hope the print version is reissued at some point.

  • The Liz Wells book is still around – I picked up a copy 12 months or so ago from Hatchards. It does seem to dwell on feminist ”views’ about the landscape.

  • An excellent post John as ever.

    An additional book worth a look is ‘The Language of Landscape’ Anne Whiston Spirin ISBN 0 300 08294 0

    For me one important point about the Oxfam campaign and ‘the general public’s’ reading of ‘epic landscape’ is that people view what is before them as benign beauty, a bucolic idyl or a peaceful and ‘sublime’ or tranquil vista. A picture postcard one dimensionality and distilation of wilderness and landscape.

    As Schama states in ‘Landscape and Memory’

    Between 1776 and 1779 the influential English painter John Robert Cozens spent time on a grand tour of the Alps with Richard Knight Payne – pontificator of the picturesque. Payne insisted that true sublimity came wrapped in a garment of memories and associations. The sublime was not simply an apparition that imprinted itself on the untutored senses. On the contrary, its emotional force depended on the beholder responding through a veil of remembered phenomena: stories, myths, histories, views natural, views pictorial, poetry and music.

    The sublime is as much about savage terror as it is beauty – landscapes and wilderness areas are capable of eliciting both.

    What emotional force will viewers bring to the Oxfam images?

    There can be no doubt that landscapes exert a subtle power over people, eliciting a range of emotions and meanings that may be difficult to specify – more so when an ‘event’ has taken place at specific site. Until such time a landscape could be considered a space. The distinction between space and place is important; while ‘space’ refers to an area or physical container, space becomes place through interaction and signification. People living working and engaging with the a given natural environment.

    Oxfam seem to be assuming people will view the landscapes presented in a positive light. Do the landscapes they show have a darker history? Many landscapes are not always simple ‘places of delight’ – scenery as sedative, topography so arranged to feast the eye. This is an issue that I am exploring in ‘A Place to Go: sites of mountain misadventure’ – http://cargocollective.com/henryiddon/A-Place-to-Go

    • And to add (now I’m back from dog & small boy walk) thanks for the book suggestion, but mostly thanks for the link to your ‘A Place to Go’. Very intriguing. I’ll PM you later about it. Thanks for the contribution, its been very valuable.

  • Henry – thanks for your thoughtful and insightful response. I think you’re absolutely correct that this subject is hugely complex, layers upon layers of ‘significance’ attaching to concepts of ‘landscape’ ‘space’ and ‘place’.

    The heart of this is:

    “Oxfam seem to be assuming people will view the landscapes presented in a positive light. Do the landscapes they show have a darker history?”

    I think there may have been a strong case for Oxfam to have turned this on its head completely, using a bland unassuming, ‘ordinary’ landscape, but still attaching the epithet ‘epic’. That dissonance may have made people stop and go ‘wtf is going on here’ and then the text reveals the reality, an ‘epic’ in the real sense of the word:

    “A long poem, typically derived from oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of…”

    In this way Oxfam could have explored the human connections with ‘epic landscape’.

    • but what about introducing this series of images this way? I know the advertising team behind this but I don’t yet know if it an ongoing entity. I don’t think there is anything bad in drawing us in with an ‘epic’ idealised landscape, provided that once we are drawn in the real story is revealed.

      As for the dissonance you mention, you are implying that this would be unpalatable. I strongly believe that there is a misunderstanding here – ‘ordinary’ landscapes are still allowed to be beautiful. Ultimately I would like to see less idealisation of land and more emphasis on the complex interactions of land and man. If it is beautiful without being deleterious to the content, so much the better.

      • I wrote that a bit too fast for my brain! What I meant was that the dissonance and ordinary photo implies it would be bland and unassuming. I wanted to say that it can be ordinary and still be beautiful.

        • I agree that “it can be ordinary and still be beautiful”. What I was implying is that the use of the word ‘epic’ and splashes of golden light assumes the ‘beauty’ is all there is to it, at a glance, which is all the time you get with an advert in many instances. My suggestion was that one is a comfortable ‘fit’ with the other, almost expected. But a bland landscape presented as ‘epic’ might make people curious and when they look further see that “complex interaction of land and man” you mention, and I attempted to elaborate.

          Let me be clear – I don’t for a moment think this is a bad campaign, I actually like it very much, and think it could be very successful, if it heads in the right direction. And I’m happy to wait and see how it unfolds. Certainly it has great potential, and the fact we’re spending so much time teasing out the subtleties of it means its grabbed our attention. That’s a good thing.

          • True! Never before has Oxfam been more on my mind, that can’t be a bad thing!

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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