What do we search for when we look at a map? What compels us to document the places we’ve seen or the experiences we’ve shared? Maps and photographs are encoded with histories, memories, and power. They tell stories. This is mine.
When I first launched Google Earth in the fall of 2006, I followed the usual routine of most newbies. I typed in every address I knew by heart: My house in San Francisco. My parents’ houses. My office. I zoomed as close as the software would let me, until the image disintegrated into an impressionist wash of pixels. I pulled back to take in a wide view of forests, deserts, oceans, and glaciers. After exploring the neighborhoods I knew well, I expanded my search to include familiar destinations: Paris, Rome, New York City. The program was impressive; I wanted to test its limits. I typed “Enewetak” into the search bar.
Formed by a necklace of coral outcroppings surrounded by shallow reefs, Enewetak atoll emerges unexpectedly from the vast blue Pacific Ocean. The atoll lies just north of the equator in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia, 2400 miles southwest of Hawaii. A few hundred Marshallese residents live there today, and the handful of foreigners who visit these remote islands are primarily government representatives, scientists, or aid workers. There are no hotels, no malls or fast-food restaurants—no tourism infrastructure exists. But there is a church, a school, a community center, and a state-of-the-art radiological laboratory.
Air Marshall Islands flies a shuttle to Enewetak from the capital of Majuro every two weeks, but only when the one available aircraft is operational. From the occupied U.S. military base on Kwajalein atoll, 400 miles to the south, it takes twenty-four hours for Army landing craft to make the journey by sea. One satellite telephone exists on the atoll in the laboratory operated by California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but most communications with Majuro or Kwajalein take place over short-wave radio. Enewetak’s school only goes up to the eighth grade; teenagers must move 650 miles away to Majuro to attend high school. Few return. The available food on the atoll is minimal (fish, coconut, breadfruit, and papaya) so four times a year the United States Department of Agriculture augments this supply with a shipment of staples—rice, flour, canned goods, coffee—by boat. Last summer, a shortage of fuel for the generators left the atoll without electricity for two months.
By nature of its remote location, scant resources, and history of military control, Enewetak atoll has remained largely invisible to most of the world. However, a virtual view of these islands has recently become available to anyone with Internet access. Online mapping programs offer high-resolution satellite imagery that renders Enewetak visible to a degree of one meter per pixel—close enough to identify buildings or follow the curl of a wave breaking onto the beach. Photo-sharing websites allow individuals to post snapshots of their travels to the atoll, and all this visual information is networked together to form a landscape of searchable data, accessible at the click of a mouse.
Viewed from space through the satellite photos on Google Earth, Enewetak reveals the trappings of an idyllic tropical paradise: pristine white sand beaches wrap around dozens of tiny green islands encircling a turquoise lagoon. Yet as you zoom closer, a different landscape appears. An old runway slices across the length of Enewetak, the large southern island for which the atoll is named. Clusters of metal rooftops glint in the sunlight. Upon closer examination the same greenery that appeared lush from 20,000 feet divides into evenly spaced, artificial rows of plantings.
In one spot, the outline of a perfect circular crater plunges into the brilliant shallows of a coral reef; its shape is mirrored in a gray circle on an adjacent island. These mysterious marks on the landscape are indecipherable through the lens of Google Earth, but I have been there. I’ve seen the concrete dome that rises twenty-five feet above sea level to cover the radioactive debris buried in the crater of an atomic blast. I have splashed in the water around the ramp that amphibious landing craft used to dock on Enewetak during the bloody battles of World War II. And I have stepped off a plane onto the same tarmac that B-29 bombers used in 1946 to launch the first peacetime testing of a nuclear weapon.
My father arrived on Enewetak in 1978, thirty years after the United States exiled the Marshallese from their homes and began testing atomic weapons on the site. The military detonated forty-three nuclear devices on Enewetak over the course of ten years. As a marine biologist working with a team of scientists, my father studied the residual impact of the radiation from those tests on the marine life in the atoll’s lagoon.
In 1980, just before my fourth birthday, my mother, my older sister, and I began joining him on the atoll during our school vacations. We spent three summers on Enewetak until the Department of Energy cut funding for the lab in 1984. After the scientists packed up and left, my family never returned. Until recently my memories of Micronesia were shaped entirely by old family photos and stories. The margins of the atoll that extended beyond the frames of our photographs faded from view. I was seven years old when we left Enewetak, and over twenty years passed before I saw the atoll again on my computer screen.
The initial thrill of finding high-res images of Enewetak on Google Earth quickly dissipated. The longer I studied them, the more these aerial photographs frustrated me. They could not reconstruct my memory of the site nor could they tell me what—or who—is there today. Trying to interpret the landscape from afar, my childhood memories proved insufficient. The island seemed bigger than the family legends had painted it over the years. More buildings seemed to have been constructed, but I couldn’t tell whether the structures visible in the satellite images were the same ones that I remembered. Which rooftop covered the lab? What did the new buildings look like from the ground? Did the Marshallese children I had played with still live there, perhaps with families of their own by now?
To better understand what I was seeing in these images, I phoned my father in Honolulu. He logged on from his computer and joined my hovering gaze above the Pacific. Connected by digital voice and satellite vision we explored the atoll together. We found the silver roof of the lab, the kitchen trailer, the machine shop where my dad crafted a pair of crutches for my sister after stitching up the gash in her foot, and the reef quarry where I learned to scuba dive when I was still too small to carry my own tank. With each of the stories my father told, I inserted a placemarker onto the map, a digital annotation with a few words of text, transcribing his words onto the locations of events that took place decades ago.
After our conversation ended, I filled in my hastily typed notes with more detail and studied the screen. The satellite photograph receded behind a new landscape of yellow pushpin icons and text. Transformed, the site was no longer defined by topography, borders, or GPS coordinates, but rather by the mapping of my family’s stories and memories of our life in this place.
Yet despite my efforts to reconstruct the visual landscape of Enewetak on the map, the picture remained fragmented and incomplete. I searched the Internet for ground-level photographs. On Flickr, the popular photo sharing website where images are tagged with searchable keywords, I stumbled across a photoset filled with spectacularly beautiful underwater images of coral reefs, tropical fish, and crystal clear water.
Two aerial photographs shot from the window of a plane gave a bird’s-eye view of the atoll, and a panoramic shot taken near the lab revealed to me the metal trailer my family once called home. Through these images, the landscape I remembered was once again recognizable. I clicked eagerly through pictures of Marshallese women laughing, a fisherman holding his catch, and a cluster of children playing with coral pebbles. Suddenly, I was stopped in my tracks. There in the bottom row, among the exotic images of a giant Pacific reef clam, the toothless grin of a dark-skinned “old islander,” and the wind-swept beauty of a young native Marshallese woman, was a photograph of me.
I am six years old. Standing on the wooden pier with the turquoise lagoon behind me, my tangled, bleached white hair frames my freckled face. My gap-toothed smile seems guarded, perhaps because a stranger has asked me to pose for a picture. In the bright sunlight, I squint up at the camera.
The photo title reads, “blond girl.”
The desire to map our territories is as old as human civilization itself: prehistoric rock carvings reveal that the impulse towards cartography predates modern technologies of image production and Global Positioning Systems by tens of thousands of years. Throughout history, and across cultures, people have always told stories through maps. But storytelling is a multiplicitous form. A similar tale can be spun with nearly endless variations and each reading can invoke different meanings: Aboriginal Songlines paint a far different visual narrative of the Australian landscape than the spatial information datasets of PSMA Australia Limited (formerly known as the Public Sector Mapping Agencies owned by the State, Territory and Australian Governments).
Maps and photographs are deeply encoded with cultural meaning, memories, and power. Our experiences and social relations give shape to the space that we inhabit, and we each live in a singular world that we map out for ourselves every day. Cartography has always been a storytelling medium—through maps, we chart the stories of our past and navigate the tides of history. What’s different today is the ability for anyone, not just trained professionals, to use maps to describe something spatially meaningful, and to share this situated knowledge, these personal geographies, with others.
With each photograph we take, and each story we tell, we mark another waypoint on the map, we stretch the imagination, and we strive to find our place in the world.