Luca Mazzali - “It's not just cartography"

Exposing the Invisible talks to Italian cartographer and researcher Luca Mazzali about the potential of maps to tell compelling stories as well as about the challenges faced by cartographers when mapping unfolding events during conflict. This interview was conducted in June 2022.

About the Interviewee

Luca Mazzali is a cartographer who works mainly in the educational sector, realizing maps for school textbooks. He also produces maps for history books and newspapers. Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he became involved in the realization of different cartographies for Scenari, a monthly, then weekly, geopolitical issue of the Italian newspaper Domani.

Interview Transcript

Exposing the Invisible in conversation with cartographer Luca Manzzali

(Note: the transcript includes minor edits for clarity reasons.)

  • Exposing the Invisible (ETI): What sparked your interest in cartography?

Luca Mazzali (LM):

Since I was a kid, I was attracted by maps. Maybe one of the most important gifts that my parents didn't do to me was a computer. So I had to enhance my creativity by imagining stuff. And I always loved to watch atlases, and to imagine a world that I could just see on books since I was not having a computer to surf on. But like to go into the very personal, I want to tell you that once I found a letter, a school letter that was written in 1971, so 21 years before I was born, in which a person was saying that his favourite subject was geography, a kid in elementary school liked geography. And because geography was the most interesting subject to study at school, to learn countries of the world, and to know where places are. Actually this school letter was written by my father. So like, let's say that there is a strong connection that goes back into my family.

  • ETI: What is your reflection of the way that the Italian media uses maps to visualise war?


Basically the role of cartography in Italy, related to the war in Ukraine, it's very limited and extremely simplified. If you watch the TV news, you will see very elementary maps, displaying just locations, or places where battles are ongoing. And especially the Russian occupied areas of Ukraine are always displayed in a way that according to me, it's too simplified, and in the end, enhances the spectators to maybe unconsciously justify the conquest of territories of Ukraine by Russia. Russia holds this territory, this is what they see in this map. So when it will come to peace, Russia has a justification to keep these territories. And that's what I want to avoid with my job. I prefer to be like more neutral and maybe a bit more uncertain, instead of creating a bias in my spectator that in the end, will bring new audience and new partisans to Putin's cause.

  • ETI: What are the challenges that the media faces when using maps to visualise the war in Ukraine?


It's a huge challenge, let's say, let's be clear since the beginning. Especially because this war has seen something that some aspects that are very old, we could have seen in wars of 20 century. A mass invasion with the huge army. Massacres. Tanks. But on the other side, we saw some difficulties given by the fact that the forces involved are not enough for a country so vast and so huge like Ukraine. And this has a consequence in cartography, because in the early days of the invasion, we were not seeing conventional occupation of Ukraine. But more, we were seeing incursions like convoys of tanks and military means following a path, and then maybe retreating in changing directions, especially because the Russian troops were not prepared to a strong resistance by Ukraine, they were thinking they would have reached Kyiv and paraded through the main streets of Kyiv in few days – two or three days. This plan, fortunately, went disrupt. And what we are seeing was like a sort of invasion, where the flow of time – there was not an occupation, I don't like to say it, but let's say conventional, but it was more volatile. One day in one village, there could be Russian troops, and the following day, these troops would have left and change direction and went to another way. I like to remember that for many days, for example, the Ukrainian flag was flying above the townhall of Kherson, or in cities that were seized by Russia, that were occupied by Russia. So, what was the dimension of Russian control of the territory? Is it correct to say, on a map, that these are Russian controlled areas? If they have not established a puppet government, if they have not established puppet city administrations? These are challenges that we had to face by doing cartography.

  • ETI: How can cartographers collaborate most effectively with investigators?


This is a very interesting question, because from my perspective, as a cartographer in a country that is not used at all to this way of representation, this is a challenge. When I do maps, I often work alone. I have to do the research, I have to seek for information, because mainly, they give me a few days of advance to work on a map, and they say, the deadline is in three days. So I want this map done in three days. And so I have to do most of my researches all alone. And my wish, is that especially in Italy, there will be a very strong, much stronger collaboration between journalists but also academics. Think in a context like this one, also the connection with academics is fundamental, and cartographers. Talking personally, I'm not a graphic, I don't come from the world of graphics, I never studied graphics in my life. I'm a geographer. I have a Bachelor in geography and the Master of Science in urban planning and policy design. So, for me, it's a luck to have studied geography. So for many aspects, I can rely by myself. But for many other aspects concerning like news, concerning about real infos or fake news, I have to search, I have to prove, I have to seek for reliable information. And undoubtedly, the ongoing conflict for me is a chance also to, like, give to my job a more prismoidal dimension. It's not just cartography, it is also like some sort of investigation, some sort of fact checking, some sort of learning new languages, because many informations in these conflicts are in Russian or in Ukrainian or in Polish. And I have to start to recognise keywords that will tell me what they're talking about.

  • ETI: What is a map for you, in the end?


A map is a narration. A map is also a tool. But I would like to say that map is a narration. And since it's a narration, it can be very powerful and very effective. It can be done for good purposes, but also for bad purposes, or to mislead the opinion of the reader. So in the end, basically, I think that a map is just a story with a spatial dimension, and with graphic characteristics. But still, it can be well done, or it can be done with malice, and with very, very tricky purposes. And for me, it's a different way to tell the readers what is happening.

Credits and Licensing

CC BY-SA 4.0

This content is produced by Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible project, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

  • Speaker: Luca Mazzali

  • Video production: Laurence Ivil

  • Editorial support and coordination: Wael Eskandar, Lieke Ploeger, Laura Ranca

  • Animation and graphic design: Yiorgos Bagakis, Paulina Rams, Jack Wolf

  • Music: “Chill Abstract (Intention)" by Coma Media

This video series is part of the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative (CIJI) project co-funded by the European Commission under the Pilot Project: "Supporting investigative journalism and media freedom in the EU" (DG CONNECT), September 2021 - August 2022

The content reflects the speaker’s views and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

First published on October 5, 2022