Teju Cole’s Mastery of the Photographic Literary Hybrid
By Nick Chhoeun
Teju Cole was our second Visiting Writer this year, for two sold-out events on October 3rd and October 4th. His extensive and groundbreaking work as an author and as a photographer for the New York Times make the large crowds unsurprising.
I recently read parts of his book Everyday is for the Thief and his more recent work Blind Spot. Everyday is for the Thief, is an entertaining read that gives a fulsome view of life in Lagos, Nigeria. Blind Spot, on the other hand, is a photographic literary hybrid that gives us vignettes into specific settings. I studied photography as a minor in my undergrad and this experimental combination of writing and photography intrigued me. I’m not saying this form has not been done before, but the language Cole uses in each vignette made me gaze back and forth between the writing and the images.
For example, on page 168, “Brooklyn,” we are given a photograph of a sign on a corner building with the word “REAL E(s)TATE” with the ‘s’ missing. The building has a fence along the side and cars parked on the opposite road. On the sidewalk, there is a woman with her back to us, wearing a red hat and dark clothes. My inner photographer praises the capturing of the lines and shapes framed within the image, and the emphasis on the woman’s hat even though it is very small in comparison to the other objects. Cole, of course, keeps the photographic rule of thirds in mind as proven through the composition of the image.
Then, through my literary lens, I marvel at Cole’s use of language. The text that supplements the image works like a prose poem and is very brief. Cole talks about the woman walking on the sidewalk, expanding his thoughts on walking by bringing up, “Hermes’s winged feet, Oedipus’s swollen foot, Achilles’ heel, Christ’s pierced feet,” (168). Cole compares himself to Oedipus, citing realizations not made until it is too late. He concludes with a line about how “photograph[s] can at the same time reveal what the photographer did not see at the time” (168). In Cole’s case, he is explaining his unawareness of the woman when he took the photo yet she is central to the final product.
This text brings up not only a sort of philosophic view on walking but also a fresh view on the photograph. Cole covers prominent figures, whether fictional or real, and guides his language back to a personal reflection in two short paragraphs. Now, with the text in mind, readers can look back at the image with new knowledge about this woman. After pondering the image, they can read the text again and then look back the image again in an endless cycle. This cycle heightens the perspective of both Cole’s purpose in what he writes about and what he sees in his photographs.
Teju Cole’s eye for photography and language intrigued me. It motivates me to try this type of experimentation in my writing.
Nick Chhoeun is a staff editor at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.