Teju Cole’s “Blind Spot“: A Book Review
By: Amelia Diamond, Joan Hogan, & Emily Okonsky
An Introduction to Blind Spot
Significance of Title
Blind Spot is a philosophical piece of textual and photographic art. Each component of the book seems to have a hidden meaning. The title, Blind Spot, may be the most allusive aspect of the book.
Cole technically defines a ‘blind spot’ as: “where the retina meets the optic nerve” resulting in a blind spot in one’s visual field. However, as the book progresses, the phrase ‘blind spot’ takes on a more powerful meaning.
In an interview with The Guardian, Cole elaborates on the meaning of the title:
“…there is also fact that the act of looking is limited. We only see a small part of what we are looking at, so there is a constant blind spot even with the kind of attentive looking that photography entails. There are many resonances in that title — how difficult it is to see clearly, how difficult it is to tell a dream , how difficult it is to make pictures that are new in some way.
The Man Behind the Camera
Teju Cole is a photographer, a photography critic for the New York Times, an art historian and a critically acclaimed author.
Cole was born in the United States to Nigerian parents and grew up in Nigeria; however, he currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.
He has written four books so far including the New York Times book of the year, Every Day is for the Thief, his novel Open City, a collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, and, of course, Blind Spot.
In addition to Cole’s productive career as an author, he is also a fantastic photographer. In fact, his work has been exhibited in the US, Iceland, India and Italy. Cole’s critically acclaimed work has landed him many awards — such as the 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction and the 2015 US Artists award. Cole is also a current board member for multiple arts organizations and periodicals.
More in depth information about Cole, his photography, and books, can be found at his personal website.
About the Book
Blind Spot is a collection of Teju Cole’s photography from his travels across the world and his meditations on these photos. The book pairs the visual appeal of a photography book with literary observations. On each spread there is, on the right, a photo taken in a particular city, and on the left, Cole’s writing inspired by that photograph. With every picture, Cole seeks to answer how we see things. Not just the way things look, but the way we experience each visual memory and how we connect these experiences to other aspects of our lives. The genres of photography, travel, and literature come together to create a different experience with each city Cole introduces.
The Setting: Where are we?
Blind Spot does not have one specific setting. Instead, the book takes the reader around the world from Tivoli to Brooklyn to Rivaz and many more. That being said, the culture ceases to be stagnant throughout the book; the cultural aspects in Blind Spot differ from chapter to chapter. This beautifully unique formatting requires the reader to develop and connect themes discussed in the short passages accompanying each photo in order to grasp the full concept of the book. As for the time period, the book seems to be set in the 2000s, as this is when Cole shot the photographs.
Analysis of Blind Spot
“My camera is like an invisibility cloak. It makes me more free.”
The majority of the photos in the book are in color and consist of ordinary scenery. Though, ordinary and simple, Cole’s photographs pack a powerful punch, which is further empowered by his profound thoughts accompanying each image.
The Art of Formatting
Teju Cole structures Blind Spot so readers can focus on each visual experience at a time. Every time you turn the page you get an image titled by its location, accompanied by a short page of prose. He focuses on one aspect of a picture and then will start to pull away into a broader perspective. He essentially uses his text to zoom in and out of the photo, in order to craft an understanding of his experience within each setting. While each pair of text and photo have their own singular purpose, they all come together to share the way Cole sees the world. This approach effectively encourages readers to walk through life with sensibility and awareness. A very evident example of this style comes from two pages where Cole shares an experience from Zürich:
Searching for Patterns
Teju Cole has no problem turning traditional literary practices on their heads. He admits that, while Blind Spot doesn’t necessarily have wholly identifiable themes or a traceable plot, throughout the collection, readers will find sprinklings of “thematic breadcrumbs.”
In order to fulfill our roles as Hansel and Gretel, we as audience members must tune in to Cole’s subtleties. Take, for example, the simplicity in the titles of each of his passages. Each written section is set up by the one or two-word name of a city. The straightforwardness of these headings allows for the range of Cole’s travels to make itself apparent. Locations like Paris and Palm Beach or Bombay and Brooklyn relate to one of the more obvious “breadcrumbs”: universality and the shared human experience. While in Brooklyn, Cole’s mind drifts to Amsterdam and he is reminded of “the shortage of bridges between them and me” (p. 310). He frequently uses dialogue and reflection to draw us into a particular moment of basic human emotion and prove that, regardless of language, skin color, gender, or background, some things remain constant. So why, then, does he use so few photos of people?
Cole offers what could be perceived as an explanation at the end of a passage about Milan: “When we look at a small scene of inanimate or vegetable objects…we do not see the emotional landscape of individuals.” He goes on to explain that, if done well, we can see that landscape by way of analogy, “we show something else” (p. 156).
While Cole makes the deliberate choice to exclude pronounced themes and plot lines from his work, several of his passages allude to spirituality, as well as race. Appearing even more frequently than those is the idea of “sight.” It isn’t until the final page in the book that we see someone’s eyes; this boy from Brazzaville provides the only direct gaze throughout the entire piece.
Before that image, many of the passages reflect on “seeing.” Take, for example, the following excerpts:
They kept asking him, “The how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ (p. 218)
The morning in the spring of 2011 that I woke up blind in one eye, the morning the mydriatic drops blurred the other eye, there was nothing technically wrong with my legs. And yet, I had trouble walking. (p. 80)
A photograph, which cannot contain all that swaggers on the eye, can at the same time reveal what the photographer did not see at the time. (p. 168)
This common thread woven among the pages reflects Cole’s complex relationship between his artistic vision and the limitations of his literal vision.
When and How
Blind Spot came together over years of travel. After Teju Cole’s success from his first book, Open City, he took time to travel extensively around the world. During this time, Cole never planted himself in one place, but instead grounded himself in moving around. He expresses in interviews that the photos he took during his travel are a way of extending his memory of the trip. As pictures come from each city, Cole used these memories and began connecting the dots of what kind of experience he had in each city. However, the theme for the book came together after Cole learned some shocking news. Cole’s vision began to deteriorate, giving him something often referred to as “blind spot syndrome” which influenced his work tremendously.
To say that Blind Spot was received warmly would be an understatement. Cole’s unique take on melding text and visuals earned him glowing praise from many notable sources. In his review of Cole’s collection, Sean O’Hagan, a feature writer for The Observer, described the book as “a deftly choreographed dance of words and pictures.” A different article written for the Guardian admired Cole’s uncanny ability to make radiant “ostensibly common things” (RO Kwon). While writers were fascinated by Blind Spot’s content, the man behind its inception was the main source of intrigue. Cole’s “palpable alertness” and intensity mirror the stunning images he captured, and have found their way into the ink on his pages.
Now It’s Your Turn
If there’s one thing that Cole teaches us as writers, it’s that we shouldn’t be afraid to let our work speak for itself. More specifically, we shouldn’t be afraid to push past the desire to spoon-feed our audience. Most of the written passages in Blind Spot have no obvious connection to the photo with which they are paired. Instead, they stand as meditative lines that force us to go back to their neighboring images and look at them differently. This bold stylistic choice speaks to the unapologetic pen that truthful writing often requires.
In addition to being an example of creating without fear, Cole’s writing reminds us to find beauty in the everyday. The majority of the glossy pictures are of things that people would pass by — folding chairs, a ripped screen door, laundry that has been hung out to dry. But that’s exactly the point. Cole writes, “What I visit less often is what has been labeled beautiful ahead of time” (p. 274). It is the scenes that do not measure up to traditional standards of beauty that Cole considers to be the most striking of all.
Perhaps more important than emulating Cole’s technique, is soaking up his wisdom and keeping it in the back of our minds. His pages are brimming with bits and pieces of genius that are invaluable to writers and non-writers alike. Even though he has captured incredible things, he also emphasizes the importance of perspective and recognizes the limitations of his craft:
“…what is seen is greater than what the camera can capture of it, what is known is finer than writing can touch” (p. 162).