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Like A Fever Dream. An Interview with Teju Cole

To some people, Instagram is all about breakfasts and selfies in swimsuits. But if you go against the logic of the medium like Teju Cole does, you can make images and texts collide. A photographer and an author, Cole has written extensively on literature, photography, social media, and travelling. His essays are now finally published as a book: „Known and Strange Things“. We talked to the American-Nigerian writer, critic and photographer about extinct animals, the art of vernacular images and about his social media use.

More than 250 000 people follow you on Twitter, and you have used it as a creative outlet. It’s been two years now since you have stopped tweeting. Why?

There was a strong sense of having done a lot of interesting work there – interesting to me and interesting to some people. Twitter has been a tremendous creative space for me, and it got some attention. That was when I did the project with people’s photographs, „The Time of the Game“ around the world cup. For me it brought together so many of my creative concerns: having to do with photography, thinking about a conceptual gesture, thinking about public space, folding it into public time. That seemed like a good time to end my Twitter presence. I did not want people to say: „Remember when Teju used to be good at Twitter.“ There was the idea of quitting when I was ahead. There was a need to move on. Instagram has then been very productive for me. I’ve done quite a lot of work there, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I just stayed on Twitter. I’ve also done a lot of work outside of social media. It would have been harder to be as productive with my essay writing in the past two years.

Do you never even check Twitter?

I do check it, like a newspaper. It can be a good place for breaking news. Although I have a lot of doubts about this because I don’t know if we really need breaking news. Whenever something happens you will hear „There are multiple shooters!“ And it turns out that there are never multiple shooters. This year particularly, using Twitter as a news-source, has become a large contributor to global panic – on top of everything else that is happening. But it’s part of the discursive landscape and definitely has its value.

In your essays on photography, Instagram is very present, and you post a lot there. Although you weren’t too interested in it after quitting Twitter. When and why have you started using it?

Maybe a year and a half ago, and I didn’t like it for many reasons. It had this general vibe of people putting up their breakfasts, or pictures of themselves in swimsuits. It wasn’t really projecting itself as an intelligent space. But the really big problem for me is the low resolution of the images. I thought: Why would you do that to your photos? But like anything else, it’s a language and once you get into it you start finding out how far you can take it, what you can do with it. Then it starts to open up. For me, the big break of Instagram was that it wasn’t just images. There was the possibility of captioning. This meant I could think of images as series. I could start to tell a kind of story that is emotionally connected over a series of images. This was a tremendous help to me as I was preparing my exhibition. Because Instagram became my notebook. So it ended up being crucial for the composition of my next book. It became a notebook for the series of image/text pairing.

~ In the days when the internet was shut off in the country, at the beginning of the week, I was as they were: we worked without reference to the outside. ~ They were few for a work site so large. Mostly they didn’t wear helmets or workboots. I thought of Salgado’s Serra Pelada pictures, or Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. I was in my luxury hotel room, and they were down below, making how much per day? Not much. Doing the work machines do almost everywhere else on earth. Lifting, mixing, pouring. Day after day, they made tiny progress on the foundation works of a massive new skyscraper. Labor that obliterated what was human. How slow it all looked, and how grievously pointless. The building they were working on was destined to eventually darken the view I now had on my ninth floor room. My eye follows the man with the wheelbarrow on the left. He is constructing a building he is destined never to use. ~ It is the rainy season now in Addis, winter, and in rain there are even fewer of them. But some of them work in rain, losing color. Ladders and poles scattered around the perimeter like toothpicks. Figures from Bruegel. Centimeters at a time, they build a tower. ~ Life out of balance. Last night, I wrote until 3 am. I wrote, unhappy with my writing (my inability to write). The world was distressing. I worked badly and was exhausted. Time to sleep. I went to the window and looked out on the now empty site. It was faintly lit. Then I went online again, and the news from France began to trickle in.

Ein von Teju Cole (@_tejucole) gepostetes Video am

Your 2006 novel „Every Day Is for the Thief“ was born out of a blog project. In the book you already used photos to go with the text, prompting comparisons to the work of W.G. Sebald. Now you write unusually long captions to your Instagram photos. In what way do you think about the interplay between image and text?

I think of them as somewhere between storytelling and documentary. And I think of the text as voiceovers, the way you might have in a certain kind of documentary, like Werner Herzog, or, closer to my sensibilities, Chris Marker. The energy comes from the resonance between the text and the image. At the end of the composition you can never be sure which came first. The great John Szarkowski, who was a director of photography at MoMA, the guy who discovered Stephen Shore, did a great book called „Atget“. He had about a hundred pictures by Eugène Atget, a short essay on the left and the picture on the right. Each essay was like a little set piece, a lyrical intervention making us think about the context, about the formal properties of the picture, a consideration of what Atget himself was up to. I wanted to do something like that, but with my own photographs. I’m still doing that on Instagram, but sometimes I just put up pictures.

Eugène Atget, „Straßenmusiker“, 1898-1899

Stephen Shore once said he hasn’t made square pictures since 1971, when he used a Mick-A-Matic, a camera for kids. Now Instagram’s format poses a similar challenge. How do you deal with those restrictions?

I think Stephen uses Instagram very responsively. Responsive to what the medium itself offers. He shoots iPhone photos, posts them right away, uses the square format. I’m going against the medium. I have long captions which is not really what Instagram was designed for. I take photos on 35mm, I develop the film, scan it, and then post the scan on Instagram and retain the original dimensions of the negative. There is nothing insta- about it. Every now and again I take a picture with a cell phone and post it. But to subvert the expectation that an Instagram picture is totally spontaneous, I post photos on Instagram that I am also going to print and sell to a collector. Stephen is really able to educate people about how to make anti-spectacular images. He can do a lot in this square format.

And he confuses people. 

People think: „The great Stephen Shore, I’ve heard of him. Why aren’t these images spectacular?“ But they’re part of a bigger body of work. He challenges the idea of individual images being good enough in some obvious way. There is an artlessness, but don’t be fooled! They really look like Shore-pictures. There’s the deep depth of field, there is a way he uses angles, a way he uses diagonals in his pictures. After you see three of them in a row, you know it is him. He has been taking pictures for more than fifty years. Like very experienced Jazz musicians. Even if they are playing randomly, there is a voice there.

Speaking of voice: You were a writer in residence in Switzerland last year. In one essay, you describe how you used the time to experiment with the camera, as if you were looking for a style. Do you think with your exhibition „Blind Spots“ in Milan, you have found your voice as a photographer?

I feel that it is very important not to be a slave to style. Recently, when I was in Italy, I was doing a lot of black and white street photography, just to do something else. Those photos are also me. What interests us cannot be simply a photographer’s visual style. The question becomes what they express through it. I have developed my own visual style. There are things related to other photographers, but there is a language for me that is strongly connected to Luigi Ghirri, Guido Guidi, Joachim Brohm, William Eggleston. But more important is what I do with it. So it is not purely visual. I can imagine a photographic project where I don’t use a camera at all, just other people’s pictures. If I post 16 photos of the Eiffel Tower from other people’s accounts, I feel that that’s my voice. How do we make sense of the banality in tourists’ pictures? How do we present the fact that certain terrains force everybody to take the same picture because of the way space is organised? On the one hand, I shoot film. On the other, I think about cheap vernacular social media photography made by other people. Both are part of my photographic practice, and related to the fact that I’m a photography critic. It’s difficult being an interesting photographer today without being a bit of a critic and a historian. It’s not so great now if a young photographer can take pictures like Robert Frank, „The Americans“. Who cares? You have to have some conceptual pressure behind the work.

As a novelist, a travel writer, an art historian, and a critic you write about all kinds of topics. But photography takes center stage in „Known and Strange Things“. What makes photography special for you?

You mean if it’s my number one art? I love writing, I love music, I love poetry. Even though I don’t write it, it influences my writing. I write novels and essays. I’m trained as an art historian. I have a bit of curatorial practice with paintings. Renaissance and baroque paintings. I studied Bruegel. I have a strong interest in Rubens and Degas. I’m not sure if photography is what I like the most now, but it’s definitely what I spend the most time on. When I collect art, it tends to be photographs. It is a sense of a miracle, looking at Cartier Bresson, Seydou Keïta. Later on, I realised how hard it is to take pictures that have energy. That made it very fascinating for me. Writing a good essay has a lot of intentionality to it. With photography, you never know what you’ll get.

Interlaken, June 2014. The world, this world, such puzzling beauty, in spite of everything. #ageographyoflove

Ein von Teju Cole (@_tejucole) gepostetes Foto am

You have constantly been writing non-fiction for several years – in fact a lot more than is now published in your collection, as you say in the preface. How did you select the essays for your book?

The earliest essay is from 2008, so it covers a seven years’ span. I wanted to select the best essays, but also a strong section about literature, one about photography, and one about politics. I do a certain kind of travel-writing that is not like articles in a travel magazine. It’s about travelling in order to find out about the hidden stories about a place. I used to joke that I’m an unhappy traveler. But I’m just curious and I don’t believe in the hype. There are always layers below that. I travel to places like Italy and Switzerland and try to look below the surface. I included a lot of those essays.

There is one striking thing: You haven’t written about animals in your  two novels. Now, one of your essays is about an extinct animal, and it really stands out.

There are two stories behind it. At the university in Zürich, there is a museum for natural history. Amidst all the bones of dinosaurs, there are also stuffed animals from the 19th-century collections. One animal is called the Thylacine, or the Tasmanian Tiger. It went extinct in the early 20th century. This could have been part of the material of “Open City” which is so much concerned with disappearance, invisibility, and historical losses. But not long after that I woke up in the middle of the night. It was a weird night. I couldn’t sleep, so I watched a video about Derrida, about the last Tasmanian Tiger, about a ferry sinking in Bangladesh while people are filming on the shore. Then I watched a performance of Beethovens 9th from 1942, while the previous week a Nazi death camp had begun operation in Belzec. Then I watched a video about the loading of the nuclear weapon that was going to strike Japan. It was like a fever dream, and I wrote it down as an essay. I was thinking about the ghostly traces that Youtube gives us. It’s the strangest essay in the book and one of my favorite.

When are you happy with a text, and how can you tell it’s ready to be included in a collection?

That’s a tough question because you select the essays for how they read together as a group. It’s like sequencing photographs. It’s not only: „Does this express good thoughts?“ But also: „Does it belong in the sequence of this book?“ Online, people would just say, „Here is my take on what just happened.“ I’m really not interested in takes. I’m interested in essays. I want to think carefully about what I saw, what happened or where I went. And then find a way of putting down the layers of thought I had. That’s a long process. If I’m able to do that, I have a chance of writing something that I like. I understand that not every essay is great. But every essay has to have layers.

You are considered one of the most important young intellectuals in the US, and you said that you believe in life online. What does intellectual practice look like in the 21st century?

Thanks! But I quibble with the description just a little. I don’t think I’m that important at all. The really influential discursive spaces are in films, on television, and in music. Books and journalism are a tiny space in comparison. Having said that, we accept it for what it is, with all its limitations. It’s important to be responsible to the space, and to be flexible in it. For me, that means being willing to be serious in a number of media. Novels and other books, sure, but also social media and other forms of getting ideas out there. Speaking to people where people are: that’s any intellectual’s job.

You wrote about the „Superhero Photographs of the Black Lives Matter Movement“ and about the symbolic power they hold. Do you think that photography can constitute a critical public, for instance in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement? What can a photography critic contribute to the readings of the images of protesters, such as Ieshia Evans?

I think the best argument I can make for the necessity of critical practice is in that piece you cite itself. In the essay, not only do I attempt to do a close reading of certain contemporary images, I also query the form itself: its certainties, its effort to close in on itself and be final. I make an argument for how important it is to recognize contingency and, defeating its threat of inertia, to move on nevertheless.

What’s next for you?

A book with photographs from Switzerland, Germany, and a dozen other countries is going to come out in April, and I’m preparing an exhibition in the US. I will do a tour of Germany in late September. Then I’m writing a non-fiction book about Lagos. In the meantime I’ll figure out what my next project on Instagram will be. Images are strong, social is the present as well as the future, and the question is what comes after Instagram. Where does it go to next? I’ll probably be using a 16mm film camera for Snapchat. Scan the films and upload them. Each snap will cost me 200 Dollars.

Titel image: Teju Cole/Tim Knox

An abridged german version of this interview is published in Monopol – Magazin für Kunst und Leben (September 2016).

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