One of the first pictures in Teju Cole’s latest book, Blind Spot, a collection of the artist’s photography paired with his poetic prose, depicts a black man in a white shirt stretched out, asleep, on a wooden table outside of a church in Lagos. Next to the table, five plastic chairs—four mint green, one white—sit close together, as if once arranged in a tight circle. In this quotidian moment most of us would simply pass by, Cole sees something divine.
“The body of Christ is on the now-lowered cross,” he writes. The chairs, he says, are those surrounding Jesus “at the moment of descent”: John the Beloved, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of God. “The earth carries the cross. The cross carries the body. The body on the cross carries the world.”Social media trains us to reduce living, breathing human beings to brands and stereotypes, but Cole resists.
Born in America and raised in Nigeria, Cole is an artist with a lengthy string of titles preceding his name, including critically acclaimed author, art historian, journalist, photographer, and photography critic, to name just a few. While his various projects reveal a wide range of interests and curiosities—he most recently collaborated with the similarly polymathic composer Vijay Iyer to create a musical companion to Blind Spot—Cole identifies a consistent theme connecting much of his work: “the limits of vision.” “To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at,” he writes. “Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot.” The obvious question, then, is: Where are our blind spots, and what lies just beyond both our literal and metaphorical fields of vision?
Recently I’ve been contemplating my own critical engagement (or lack thereof) with the images I view and produce. According to one estimate, a staggering 1.2 trillion photos were taken in 2017 alone, one hundred billion more than the previous year. The reason for this exponential increase is, of course, the ubiquity of smartphones. Today, photography is cheap and easy, allowing us to take and share endless pictures of our food, our pets, our travels, and ourselves.
We’re also seeing more pictures than ever. I use the word “seeing” here in its most basic, scientific sense: light enters our corneas and, through a series of refractions, becomes electric impulses that tell our brains to produce an image. We may be looking at photos, but we barely register their form or content as we scroll-scroll-scroll through Instagram, watching hundreds of pictures flit by every minute. We’re passive and addicted viewers caught in an endless stream of images and information, “drowning,” as Dutch artist Erik Kessels says, “in representations of other people’s experiences.”
(While I was typing these very words, a friend texted me, completely unprompted: “I deleted all social media from my phone. I noticed that I was constantly checking Instagram and barely processing any of it. Just an empty experience.”)
Blind Spot is an antidote to Instagram syndrome, the habit of looking but not truly seeing. Cole, it seems, is incapable of moving through the world without devoting attention and care to each and every landscape, person, and image he encounters. Social media trains us to reduce living, breathing human beings to brands and stereotypes, but Cole resists. “Unable to know one another,” he writes, “we must simply presume a landscape of inner complexity for each person we meet.”
With his camera in hand, everything is intimately connected to everything. A picture of translucent curtains in a Nuremberg hotel room evokes thoughts on the painter Albrecht Dürer and the resurrection of Christ. “There is a curious comment about folds in John’s account of the Resurrection,” Cole writes. “A folded cloth that remained folded even as events unfolded.” In Gadsden, Alabama, an hour from Birmingham, where I make my home, Cole captures an image of a lightly wooded field off the highway near the spot where William Moore, a postal worker protesting racial segregation, was gunned down in 1963. “There’s Klan in those woods still.” Through his lens, past and present are one.
“The camera’s eye is not the human eye,” writes novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt in the book’s foreword. “The camera takes in everything inside its frame. We do not. Human beings have poor peripheral vision.” Reading these words, I’m reminded of a friend who began every day with a simple prayer: “God, allow me to see the world as it really is.”
How would that change the way we live, seeing the world as it really is? And how would it affect the images we choose to capture and share, as well as our motivations for sharing them?
We tend to treat photographs as neutral snapshots of specific moments. In reality, though, photographs, especially the kind we find on Instagram, play a much more active role in actually creating—not merely documenting—those very moments. In one of his thoughtful New York Times Magazine photography columns, Cole comments on how our most basic interactions with physical spaces are shaped by our instinct to photograph them. “People don’t merely go to the same places or take photographs of the same monuments and sites; they take photographs of the same monuments and sites in the same way,” he writes. “We think we are moving through the world, while the whole time the world is pulling us along, telling us where to walk, where to stop, where to take a photo.”
Photographs communicate certain values and philosophies, and they elicit fears, longings, and hopes from deep within the viewer. This has always been true, long before Instagram existed, but its heightened now by the sheer volume of content we’re exposed to. A few minutes spent mindlessly scrolling can determine who we admire, where we travel, and what we desire. Indeed, one can never be too careful about the images one sees, for what we see determines how we live.
And, as Cole shows us, a picture never actually captures the whole picture. There are always people and places being omitted for the sake of a more pleasant, shareable image. On my way to church each Sunday, I pass a mural downtown that reads, “It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham.” People stand in line, often dressed up, waiting to take a picture their followers can then dutifully “heart.” There’s nothing wrong with this, and one could even argue it’s good for the city in many ways. But it’s an incomplete picture of the city. Blind Spot, and Cole’s larger body of work, is, for me, a reminder to look past the beautiful brick and bright colors and consider the complicated history and current forces shaping our communities. For whom has this particular mural not always been true? Who is being displaced in the name of progress, and where are they going? Who, and what, gets cropped out of the frame?
Developing the spiritual discipline of seeing—and portraying—the world as it really is, with all its entanglements and complications, starts with actively looking for our blind spots and refusing to accept the simple stories that allow us to overlook what’s right before us. And it means resisting the urge to photographically bear false witness, to present carefully tailored versions of our lives and pretend, or worse, truly begin to believe, they’re the real thing.
Raised in the Christian faith, Cole no longer believes in God. Belief, he says, was one of his own blind spots. Even so, he sees forms of Christ everywhere. “The moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing,” he tells one interviewer, “all this Christianity just comes in—not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it.” As I consider Cole’s work, I think of the blind man at Bethsaida. When Jesus spits on his eyes and lays hands on him, his vision returns—but not fully. “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Again, Jesus lays his hands on the man, but this time his sight is restored, “and he saw everything clearly.” For Cole, though, it’s the loss of belief that leads to clearer vision.
This morning, within moments of waking up, I rolled over to check my phone. My thumb, guided by muscle memory, opened Instagram and began to scroll. After a minute or so, a photo caught my eye, and I stopped to decipher what, exactly, I was looking at. “We travel on. There are others on the journey, many seen, many not,” the caption read. It was a post from Cole, of course, and the image appears to be a close-up of a larger painting. The droplets of earth-toned paint over the texture of the canvas created a unique, mesmerizing effect that most would overlook for the full picture. Slow down, Cole seemed to be saying. Look closer.