Teju Cole has published four books: a novel, a novella that started life as a blog, a collection of essays, and a book of his own photographs. He is a professional art historian (of early Netherlandish art, in case you were wondering), a political activist, a prolific Instagrammer, and has curated many an excellent playlist on Spotify. He is not a writer who can be easily pinned down.
His books themselves bear this out. His novel, Open City, at times feels more like a meditation on whatever topics city life throws up, the range of which is practically limitless. The novella, Every Day is for the Thief, holds inside its fragmentary narrative an education about the subtle and often mercenary dynamics of daily life in Lagos, Nigeria. His essays, collected under the title Known and Strange Things, are wide-ranging and engaging, and no reader will close it without having learned something – perhaps hard fact, of which there is plenty, but perhaps simply a small shift in the way you look at the world.
Cole’s most recent book, Blind Spot, is a book of his own photographs, each with an accompanying text alongside it. These miniature essays don’t always describe the photographs they appear with, but this isn’t to say that the photograph is to be considered a mere springboard for the text. They appear alongside each other to be considered alongside each other – with each other.
This work has to be settled down with in order to be enjoyed. Cole asks you to slow down, never putting the request directly but instead letting his own example present the case. If you try to read Blind Spot quickly, it falls flat, but this is a strength and not a weakness of Cole’s. Each image and mini-essay has come about because Cole gave himself the time and space to look, to see, and to reflect.
To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot.
But this does not mean to stand still. The photographs were taken on Cole’s extensive travels, each text titled with the location the photo was taken, and we often find ten different countries in as many pages. Cole is always on the move, and this tells us that Cole’s version of slowing down has nothing to do with stopping, but rather enables him to appreciate what is around him while he goes.
This is a very personal book, and Cole does not try to keep himself out of it – it is him looking, he is the one speaking, the photos were seen through his eyes and captured with his camera – but all this always feels in the service of his subject. In the middle of the book he writes that ‘what is seen is greater than what the camera can capture of it, what is known is finer than writing can touch,’ which is a brave thing to say for a man who is both photographer and writer.
Cole, whose work is a masterclass in the art of looking, claims ‘the limits of vision’ as his subject: ‘To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot.’ Teju Cole’s own Blind Spot leaves the reader feeling encouraged by this fact: there is always more still to see, and there always will be.