Seeing is believing | Teju Cole is an artist who works with his eyes open and his shoes on. His writing is legendary; his photography about to become just as important. The America-born Nigerian author of the multi award-winning novel Open City makes a welcome return to the Book Festival with Blind Spot, a brilliant new work about reading and writing, seeing and snapping. He talks to Elizabeth Reeder.
“Some other energy, some other charge happens.”
Teju begins the event by presenting a snapshot of Blind Spot: seven photos that travel various parts of the globe with his accompanying text, plucked from the book in front of him. “They’re not captions,” he notes. “They’re voice overs in a way, an auditory track over the images.”
From the 150 images in the book, how did he choose the seven he displays today? Teju notes that there is one version of experiencing the book which is you buying a copy and reading it, taking in the images and their respective text from start to finish. Then there’s presenting it in a gallery in New York, which he recently had the chance to do; the 32 images picked weaved their own shorter story. This is the extension – an even more compact version. He pulled from themes of repetition and return, building it thematically like a novel, though the handful of images can be bitesize in comparison.
The creation of his work is interesting – he’s the photography critic for the New York Times so the struggle is that he already knows whats wrong with the photos. “The work I’m trying to have [the photos] do is not say ‘look at this great photo’ but where some other energy, some other charge happens.”
The text, while adding to the images, also draws more attention from spectators in galleries. People spend more time with the piece, they read. It’s interesting that people will go a gallery and look at a Caravaggio, glance at the painting, spend a few minutes reading the caption, and that’s it – they seem to miss that the story is being told in the painting too.
Blind Spot combines a lot of interesting strands, and travel is key – but it’s the anti-travel travel guide. It’s impossible to shelf – “How to go to places and feel depressed” – and it digs a little deeper. Where a movie set in Paris will show the Eiffel Tower, one in Scotland will throw in kilts for good measure, he questions, “What is being overlooked? Anonymous structures and textures convey that most places we go to are remarkably similar. Seeing that is the first step to actually seeing each other.”
These tie us together. “Though, in Nigeria we have a fabulously inept government… oh wait!” He looks for the differences by scratching the surface where there’s otherwise a vested interest in suppressing how we came to be. “It’s all advertising,” muses Teju on how places are presented. “I want to look past that.”
“It’s okay to risk failure every day.”
Writing in this form is likely closest to poetry, in a sense. “When you write poetry, you say it in the best way you can say it, not the most way.” You leave a lot available for unpacking. There’s the text to accompany the image but there’s no rigid definition of everything being presented. Yet people question you – as a black man, he can often be asked to explain himself, “make yourself clear to us. I am not here to explain myself to the centre. I am here to assert my experience of life. There’s no demystification necessary.”
Amidst all this the end goal, of course, remains pleasure, that someone will feel compelled to turn the pages. While technically there’s less text than in a 400 page novel, Blind Spot can take longer to read when you have to process it – Teju talks of some of his favourite poets, who didn’t write a great volume, where he could read a page and have to take the day to process it, such was its impact. Word count isn’t as powerful as the content.
So how does he overcome that feeling as a reader, when he’s also a writer who still needs to write? “Being a creative person, you know that it’s not got to be Ulysses, and that’s okay. It’s okay to risk failure every day. You don’t do the work because you think you’re great – you know the work is worth doing.” He’s particularly protective of the part of himself that’s open to risk-taking.
Teju and Elizabeth chat further on form, the tension between text and image as he creates, and where the future lies. Blind Spot might be a book in its final form, but the journey has already pushed Teju in his next work to look at creating a performance piece of images, video, spoken voice and music – it’s already inspiring him to push the boundaries of format and performance, and it sounds as fantastic and intriguing as the hour he just hosted.